Tackling the NHS’ own obesity crisis

If you’re confronted by an obese GP or nurse telling you to lose weight, you might feel like choking on your biscuits. But as the NHS battles its own obesity problems – fuelled by shift work, exhausted staff and a vending-machine culture – this ironic scenario is becoming increasingly common.

Speaking in 2014, Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, said: “It’s hard for the NHS to talk about how important [obesity] is if we don’t get our own act together.”

Filling up on comfort food

A recent infographic published by NHS employers estimated that 400,000 NHS employees are overweight and a further 300,000 are obese.

Lisa Squire is a nurse on a postnatal ward. She is currently trying to reduce her weight. She works shifts, including nights, and thinks the limited catering options make it difficult to eat healthily. She says: “We have a canteen that does offer healthy options, such as salads, but it closes at 7.30pm. If I’m on a night shift, my only food is from the vending machine or toast.”

The other big problem for many hospital staff is the way that patients show their appreciation. Lisa adds: “Our ward reception desk is never without a huge box of chocolates or cakes.”

Changing my size and my life

Carole Crocker is Assistant Nurse Director for the NHS in the West Country. When a patient pointed out she needed to follow her own advice about weight loss, she joined a weight loss group that used Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) techniques and lost five stone.

“I was setting a terrible example. I couldn’t blame patients for not taking me seriously,” says Carole.

Following her weight loss, Carole told her story to a national newspaper. The article that followed sent shock waves right to the heart of the NHS. “I was invited to a VIP dinner, where Simon Stevens was guest of honour. Everyone around the table wanted to hear my story. Following that event, a wellbeing task-force was set up to look at the issue of employee obesity within the NHS. My newspaper article was featured on the NHS England intranet and I was also invited to give an online presentation to my colleagues about how powerful Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is for losing weight,” Carole adds.

“I don’t think my weight loss story in itself is unusual, although changing my body size along with the group work has changed my life. I do think that the article about me was published at a time when NHS management were starting to sit up and realise that they had to do something about obesity within their own workforce.”

Sugar tax

Even before the Chancellor’s Budget (March 2016) announcement about sugar tax, Simon Stevens had unveiled wide-ranging plans to address staff obesity, including an NHS-wide sugar tax, where hospital cafes and vending machines would charge higher rates for high-sugar snacks and drinks to discourage staff, patients and visitors from buying them.

Professor John Wass is an endocrinologist who co-authored a report called Action on Obesity for the Royal College of Physicians in 2013. In his opinion, both NHS England and the local hospital trusts are starting to make constructive changes. He says: “A very significant proportion of the NHS workforce is overweight and there is an understanding that they have to lead by example. I think Simon Stevens is making good strides in this area, but it will take time.”