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‘Deeply worrying’ research suggests 25% of nurses in England are obese


More than one in four nurses in England is obese, according to a new study, which warns this could hamper their ability to deliver safe and effective care.

Meanwhile levels of obesity among health and care support staff are even higher, suggests the research published in BMJ Open, which calls on the NHS to take urgent action to tackle the problem and “put its own house in order”.

“That one in four nurses in England have been found to be obese is deeply worrying”

Richard Kyle

The study is thought to be the first to provide reliable estimates of the prevalence of obesity among healthcare professionals in England.

Researchers from Edinburgh Napier University and London South Bank University analysed data on more than 20,100 employed people who completed the Health Survey for England between 2008 and 2012.

Of those, 422 were nurses, 412 were “other healthcare professionals”, 736 were unregistered care workers and the rest were in non health-related jobs.

The analysis found 25.1% of nurses were obese compared with 14.4% of “other healthcare professionals”, which included doctors and dentists. Unregistered care workers had the highest prevalence of obesity at 31.9%.

“This study provides evidence to support urgent action from NHS England and private sector healthcare providers”

Dr Richard Kyle

These figures compared to an obesity rate of 23.5% among the general working population.

While obesity rates among nurses were found to be similar to the general workforce, the researchers said nurses might be expected to be less likely to be overweight because of their health knowledge.

“The greater health literacy of nurses might be expected to contribute to lower rates of obesity than the general population but this study has shown that nurses are no more able to maintain a healthy weight than their age-related and gender-related cohorts,” said the paper.

Study co-author Richard Kyle, director of Edinburgh Napier University’s Nurses’ Lives Research Programme, described the findings as “deeply worrying”.

“Obese individuals may struggle with health issues associated with obesity, including fatigue… that could reduce productivity in the workplace”

Research on obesity by Edinburgh Napier and LSBU

“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, cardio-vascular disease, and diabetes,” he said.

“This study provides evidence to support urgent action from NHS England and private sector healthcare providers to address high rates of obesity among nurses and, especially, unregistered care workers,” added Dr Kyle.

The study suggests being obese can get in the way of delivering the best care and may mean nurses are more likely to fall ill and need time off or even quit the profession entirely.

“Obese individuals may struggle with health issues associated with obesity, including fatigue, breathlessness or arthritis, that could reduce productivity in the workplace,” said the paper, called Obesity prevalence among healthcare professionals in England: a cross sectional study using the Health Survey for England.

“Workforce capacity may be reduced through increased absenteeism and premature workforce exit,” it added.

Together these two factors could increase NHS costs “considerably” through sickness absence payments, paying agency staff to fill rota gaps and training new nurses to replace experienced staff who leave.

“Nurses who are obese may experience considerable difficulty in carrying out certain physical aspects of patient care activities”

Research on obesity by Edinburgh Napier and LSBU

Obesity may also “hinder effective patient care through performance impairments that impact on patient safety”, the paper suggested.

“Nurses who are obese may experience considerable difficulty in carrying out certain physical aspects of patient care activities requiring access to tight spaces [and] range of motion and mobility,” sais the paper.

It also suggested they may struggle to perform nursing tasks such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, moving and handling, and attending to patients’ personal care needs due to limited space in washrooms.

The researchers said it was clear NHS England and individual trusts needed to do more to support staff to maintain a healthy weight.

“The high prevalence of obesity among the healthcare workforce should urge policy makers and employers to provide solutions through workplace initiatives that support staff to maintain a healthy body weight,” said study co-author Professor Jane Wills, from LSBU.

She said other research by LSBU had found many nurses think they should be role models for public health and that their credibility is undermined if they are obese.

“Greater investment in the health of the nursing workforce would benefit the health service in terms of credible public health messages, improved workforce retention and sickness-absence rates, better patient care and productivity, improved morale, job satisfaction and wellbeing,” added Professor Wills.

“Greater investment in the health of the nursing workforce would benefit the health service in terms of credible public health messages”

Jane Wills

The latest study points to potential problems for the future nursing workforce, given obesity prevalence was found to be especially high among older nurses.

Almost half – 47.1% - of nurses over the age of 45 were found to be obese, increasing the likelihood of musculo-skeletal and mental health conditions, which is the main causes of sickness absence in the health service.

The paper suggested lack of access to healthy food options at work, shift working and stresses linked to being employed in a high pressure environment may be among reasons for obesity among healthcare staff.

An NHS England spokeswoman 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,” she added.


Readers' comments (18)

  • Absolutely spot on. I am in my late 50s and am one of the few nurses to be slim and fit . I work full time and still go for a run or just a walk daily.There is little excuse and support should be offered to those obese staff. Ultimately you cannot blame everyone else. Take responsibility. Eat less, move more. Get off your phone..
    Limit sick leave. I could go on.

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  • get off your phone !!!!
    Who has time to use their phone ??
    As a community nurse seeing up to seventeen patients a day I eat my lunch in my car in between visits !! And yes most days it’s a pre made sandwich from the garage , some days my first drink is when I get to stop after my 11+ diabetics !
    I am obese , but it has no impact on the job I do, I still get on my knees to dress bi-lateral legs usually around 4 times a day ! lets slate the down trodden nurses a little more , we may get a few more leaving the profession !!

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  • Quite right I am a community nurse too and have always prided myself on being slim but comfort eating and grabbing a snack in between visits is not ideal and I do fine it difficult to lose weight now yet have never understood how people get obese when I was slim but a blame game is not the best way to tackle it. I agree though nurses are aware of the health implications but are human after all. I can't even get support with massage therapy for bad back that I pay for monthly due to work so doubt they will help us with weight

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  • Pay more, reduce unsociable working hours, provide better emotional support. Improve access to healthy food at work, encourage actual breaktimes and acknowledge when these are not possible and have a working culture that seeks to rectify this rather than one that considers it the norm and nurses as martyrs. Nurses are people too and the statistics that demonstrate obesity increases in the population includes nurses, doctors and even dieticians! This should not be a finger pointing exercise but to look at the reasons why this may be the case.

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  • Concerning nursing associates I agree they should pay the same to nmc as RGN do as so practically same job anyhow and same responsibility . Anyhow there will be no RGN soon in future as we are too expensive so will be replaced by associates

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  • So.. I've been running all day at work: I did 11.5h working time, 12.5h total (I sat up only several times by the desk to check the results and twice on my 30 minutes break), came back home way too tired to cook anything, switched on my mobile phone to check emails and found this insulting article.

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  • Only 25% I’d say a lot more, as a student nurse I have been shocked at the size of the nurses in different disciplines that I have worked with. I’ve seen too many who are supposed to be dieting but consume everything in sight (biscuits and chocolates brought in by appreciating families), As a profession we need to get a grip of how we portray a healthy society. Obviously there are some people that cannot help their size, but others need a bit more self control.

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  • A simple unobjective look around any clinical area in a hospital will quickly show that healthcare staff are no better or worse than the general population in terms of obesity and fitness. And why should they be in reality? When even Doctors get very little lifestyle and diet training during their education then why should we expect nurses, support workers or AHPs to have any more knowledge of this complicated and contentious area. Most people still think that exercise and activity are the solution when all the evidence suggests it is near impossible to regulate weight using this method alone. You simply cannot out-exercise a bad diet.
    So in this context it's no surprise that nursing staff and support staff suffer the most. They tend to work unpredictable shift patterns, grab (poor quality) food on the go, suffer from poor sleep (quantity and quality), work in stressful environments daily and mostly never undertake physical activity at a level that will aid fitness despite being constantly 'busy'. It is a deep cultural issue that effects all walks of life but healthcare staff have a number of confounding issues to deal with. And whilst it's still an issue that cannot be talked about openly for fear of judgment (demonstrated by the number of 'anonymous' posts) it will not get solved. It's not about blame, it's about education and then actual real solutions beings implemented. However I cannot see this happening any time soon sadly. For me the 4 biggest quick fix tools for most healthcare staff to follow long-term would be:
    -Do not drink anything other than water/milk/tea/coffee (drinking sugary calories is dangerously easy)
    -Take the stairs at every opportunity (it's more effective than jogging)
    -Avoid snacking between meals- feeling hungry is no bad thing and it means you savour food more once you get to eat properly.
    -Remove the mobile phone from your sleeping area (buy an alarm clock instead)

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  • Christopher Tucket is spot on. A balanced and non judgemental comment based on knowledge. As opposed to the first comment from the paragon of virtue that issued blame and condescension.

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  • Lets make this simple. Accept responsibility for your situation.
    Make a plan of the things you can do . Ask for help. Get together with other nurses.
    Bit by bit.

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