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”
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”
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.