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Poor Workplace Nutrition Hits Workers' Health and Productivity

Armen Hareyan's picture

Nutrition and Nurishement

Poor diet on the job is costing countries around the world up to 20 per cent in lost productivity, either due to malnutrition that plagues some one billion people in developing countries or the excess weight and obesity afflicting an equal number mostly in industrialized economies, says a new study by the International Labour Office (ILO).

"Poor meal programs and poor nutrition underlie so many workplace issues: morale, safety, productivity, and the long-term health of the workers and nations. But few workers are happy with their meal arrangements", says Christopher Wanjek, the author of the study, Food at Work: Workplace solutions for malnutrition, obesity and chronic diseases (Note 1), which will be formally launched at the XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Orlando, Florida, September 19-22.

The ground-breaking study, the first to examine workplace eating habits worldwide, says better nutrition in the workplace can raise national productivity rates, while workplace meal programs can prevent micronutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases, obesity with modest investments that can be repaid in reduction of sick days and accidents.

Other findings on nutrition and work include:

  • The world is facing a "food gap" of staggering proportions, with one out of six people on the planet undernourished, and an equal number overweight or obese.

  • Inadequate nourishment can cut productivity by up to 20 per cent.

  • In 2001, non-communicable (diet-related) diseases contributed to about 46 per cent of the global disease burden and 60 per cent of all deaths worldwide, with cardiovascular disease alone amounting to 30 per cent of deaths. The global burden of diet-related diseases is expected to climb to 57 per cent by 2020.

  • In Southeast Asia, iron deficiency accounts for a US$5 billion loss in productivity.

  • In India, the cost of lost productivity, illness and death due to malnutrition is US$10 to 28 billion, or 3 to 9 per cent of gross domestic product.

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  • In wealthier nations, obesity accounts for 2 to 7 per cent of total health costs: in the United States the annual economic costs of obesity to business for insurance, paid sick leave and other payments is US$12.7 billion.

  • In the United States, where over two-thirds of the population is overweight, direct medical costs accounted for approximately US$51.6 billion and lost productivity approximately US$3.9 billion - reflected in 39.2 million lost work-days, 239 million restricted-activity days, 89.5 million bed-days and 62.6 million physician visits.

  • In the developing world, a 1 per cent kilocalorie (kcal) increase results in a 2.27 per cent increase in general labour productivity.

Too often, food at work is seen as an afterthought or a hindrance by employers and is often a "missed opportunity" to increase productivity and morale. Canteens, if they exist, routinely offer an unhealthy and unvaried selection. Vending machines are regularly stocked with unhealthy snacks. Local restaurants can be expensive or in short supply. Street foods can be bacteria-laden. Workers sometimes have no time or place to eat or no money to purchase food.

"Developing nations need to break the cycle of poor nutrition, low productivity and low wages. Some workers have difficulty feeding their own children in these regions and poor child nutrition is dooming for the future workforce. It is important to note how prevalent iron-deficiency is and how cheaply it can be remedied. Low iron, which affects up to half the world's population, is tied to sluggishness and diminished cognitive ability and thus accidents and low productivity", says Wanjek.

"Wealthy nations face the staggering cost of chronic diseases and obesity. Neighborhood intervention isn't working. Providing healthy food at work is the best way to get people to eat at least one healthy meal a day", adds Wanjek.

The study includes numerous case studies demonstrating effective "food solutions" from variety of enterprises in 28 industrialized and developing countries. Examples include a successful meal voucher systems instituted in Brazil and France, employer partnerships with local food vendors in the United States and South Africa as well as practical suggestions for improving canteens, cafeterias and mess rooms.

Clean drinking water, an often over-looked issue in nutrition, is also highlighted. Hunger and sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation represent some of the most serious challenges to the achievement of the UN's Millennium Development Goals aimed at halving poverty by the year 2015. This study reveals that these targets cannot be met only at the workplace, but that the workplace is in fact an essential place to start. Healthy food (and protection from unsafe and unhealthy food and eating arrangements) is as essential as protection from chemicals or noise at the workplace.

Food at work is inextricably linked to the pillars of the ILO's Decent Work agenda. It is an essential foundation for employment of a productive workforce, an indispensable element of social protection of workers and an important topic for social dialogue between employers and workers, while the rights to safe drinking water and to freedom from hunger are basic human rights. In 1956, the International Labour Conference adopted the Welfare Facilities Recommendation (No. 102), which specified guidelines for the establishment of canteens, cafeterias, mess rooms and other food facilities. This was with the understanding that the workplace, where many adults spend a third of their day, or half their waking hours, is a logical place for health intervention. - GENEVA (ILO News)