Urgent action needed on obesity among nurses, study shows

Action is needed to address obesity among healthcare staff, with one in four nurses in England dangerously overweight, researchers say

Urgent action is needed to address obesity among healthcare staff, researchers say in a study that reveals one in four nurses in England is dangerously overweight.

Picture: iStock

Some 25% of nurses are obese compared with 14% of other healthcare professionals including doctors and 23% in occupations unrelated to healthcare, according to what is the first national study to provide reliable estimates of the prevalence of obesity in healthcare staff.

Only unregistered care workers had a higher obesity rate than nurses at 32%, says the study, published today on BMJ Open.

Obesity was defined in the study as having a body mass index of more than 30.

Deeply worrying

Edinburgh Napier University and London South Bank University analysed results from more than 20,000 individuals who completed the Health Survey for England between 2008 and 2012. The cohort included 422 nurses, 412 other healthcare professionals and 736 unregistered care workers.

Until now, the extent of obesity among healthcare professionals was not known, with the Department of Health estimating around 300,000 health staff (21%) are obese.

Co-author of the study Richard Kyle, who is director of Edinburgh Napier University’s Nurses’ Lives Research programme, said: ‘Obesity is a global pandemic, and healthcare professionals are at the heart of efforts to bring down high levels of obesity among the population.

‘That one in four nurses in England have been found to be obese is deeply worrying, not least because we know that obesity is linked to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.’

Role models

Co-author Jane Wills, professor of health promotion at London South Bank University, said her previous research, published in Nursing Standard, showed many nurses think they should be role models for public health and believe that their credibility in health promotion practice is undermined if they are obese.

The study says urgent action is needed by NHS England, involving NHS trusts, to reduce the prevalence of obesity among health professionals.

The research is part of a wider project by Collaborating for Health (C3) which runs the Healthy Weight Initiative for Nurses (WIN), whose funders include the Burdett Trust for Nursing and the RCN.

C3 nursing associate Michaela Nuttall said factors in obesity among nurses included 12-hour shifts, a lack of breaks, the opening hours and proximity of wards to hospital canteens, and a lack of space to store and eat food.

Taken off front-line duties

Ms Nuttall said she had heard of nurses who had been taken off front-line duties because they were too overweight to do CPR, and weight issues often masked mental health concerns.

‘We have heard from nurses who say, “I am gaining weight every year but no one has asked me why – is there something else going on?” Nurses want to talk about these issues and be looked after and supported.’

WIN is talking to training managers about having a conversation about weight with individual staff members at a set point each year.

The RCN has worked with WIN and others to produce health resources for nurses.

Struggle to make healthy choices

Commenting on the research, RCN senior employment relations officer Kim Sunley said: ‘There is no doubt obesity is a major public health issue, and we know nurses sometimes struggle to make healthy choices due to long hours, shift work and stress.

‘In response, the RCN has worked with partner organisations to develop the Nursing You resource. This helps nurses recognise triggers for unhealthy decisions and make better food choices.’

Carolyn Pallister, public health manager at weight loss group Slimming World, called for support for nurses to make healthy changes, including healthy food options in the workplace, encouraging more flexible working and breaks to reduce stress, support to get more active, and providing access to weight management services.

Healthy food option

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘Calorie-laden, sugary snacks contribute to obesity, preventable diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease and cancer.

‘We want healthy food to be an easy option for hospital staff, patients and visitors, which is why NHS England has told hospitals to clear sugary drinks and snacks and fatty foods from shops, canteens and vending machines and is providing extra funding for those that do so.’

Tips to maintain a healthy weight

  • Learn from experience – was there a time in the past when you lost weight? What helped and what didn’t? Try to prevent situations that didn’t help.

  • Find your motivation – find resources, whether it’s a weight-loss app or a friend or family member to support you in your aim.

  • Be competitive – start a steps walking challenge with nurses on your team, do a group weigh-in or join Slimming World or Weight Watchers together.

Source: Michaela Nuttall, Healthy Weight Initiative for Nurses

Further information

In other news


This is a free article for registered users

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this? You can register for free access.