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1 in 3 Malaysians are overweight. As a boss, should you care?

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At the opening of a fitness run organised by the Education Ministry this weekend, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, expressed his concern over the increasing number of obese people in the country.

Specifically, he stated the latest figures from the Health Ministry and National Health and Morbidity Survey showed the obesity rate in Malaysia has increased from 14.9% in 2006 to 15.2% in 2011.

“This is alarming,” he said. “One out of three people in Malaysia has weight problems.”

It’s no secret the developed world’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles is making us fatter and unhealthier. More people than ever are suffering from heart attacks, strokes and slow killers like diabetes. It’s also no secret that there is a strong link between obesity and lower productivity.

But unfortunately we, as a wider society, are become immune to public service announcements telling us to lose weight, exercise and live a healthier lifestyle. We live with the concept of ‘now’, not ‘tomorrow’, and the general public doesn’t place enough importance on what will cripple us – health-wise and economically – in the coming decades.

But as an HR professional or business leader, why should you care? Well, you should care because health is irreplaceable and healthy lifestyles produce healthy human capital.

As Malaysia strives to hit the target of becoming a developed nation by 2020, all human capital factors must be considered. This means, in my opinion, businesses should be asking themselves the following questions:

  • Do we already make an effort to help our employees stay healthy and maintain a healthy weight? And if not,
  • Should we be playing a bigger role in reducing the number of obese or overweight employees?

A lot of the time, you will sit here and answer yes to either of those questions, but it is easier said than done. What if your staff don’t want your help? What if you don’t know how to begin in offering things like health checks and seminars? Or maybe your board of directors doesn’t think helping people lose weight is a pressing business objective, nor their responsibility.

Personally, I believe that companies should be playing a bigger role in maintaining the health of their staff. Why? Because there’s absolutely no downside in doing so.

You might be sitting there thinking it’s not your job to act as nutritionists and personal trainers for your staff, but have you really considered the alternative? In a nutshell, it’s a less productive and obese population, which costs you more money in health insurance and needs to work longer to fund their retirement. They’ll be fat, unhappy and unhealthy, basically.

But what you can do to ensure your workforce maintains a strong culture of health and wellness needn’t cost you a fortune, nor should it embarrass your staff or force them to take part.

Here are a few ideas you can start with the get the ball rolling:

1. Find out what they want: Chances are your employees haven’t asked about health programmes, gym memberships or other wellness benefits because they simply don’t know what they want. Finding out what your staff think about health initiatives – and what they think the business’s role should be – is a good place to start.

2. Be flexible: Once you establish your goal of being a more health-oriented workplace, it can work in your favour to allow employees some breathing room within the typical 9am to 6pm work day. This will not only help with stress levels, but will also provide time for staff to exercise during the day. If you’re worried about staff simply taking advantage of flexible time, try something like implementing a ‘health ambassador’ who encourages staff to have healthy lunches, followed by a group trip to a nearby gym for a quick class before returning to work.

3. Implement walking meetings: A walking meeting has been proven to increase employee producivity by up to 60%, and also ensures staff move around – rather than sitting in a boring meeting room – while getting work accomplished.

4. Help staff come up with their own ideas: In a previous job back in New Zealand, a colleague of mine started a ‘walking group’, which involved five or six of us leaving working early (at around 4pm) one day a week to go do something active for a couple of hours. Usually it was a hike at a nearby beach, but other times it was playing ultimate frisbee in the park or bringing our bikes to work and heading to a bike track. It got us out the office, improved our team’s morale and meant we we got outside. If a staff member in your team has a similar idea, help them put it into practice and see what happens.

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Rebecca Lewis
Human Resources Magazine Singapore

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