Levels of obesity and being overweight among nurses in Scotland is “worryingly high” and significantly more likely within the profession than among other healthcare workers, according to new research.
A study found 70% of nurses to be overweight or obese, compared to around half of other healthcare professionals. It said interventions were “urgently required” to address the issue.
“The high levels of overweight and obesity raises some concerns about the effectiveness of health promotion”
Due to be published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, the research – by Edinburgh Napier University – also showed the prevalence of weight problems among Scottish nurses was worse than the US nursing workforce (around 55%) and other countries including the UK (59%) as a whole, New Zealand and Australia (both 61%).
The high prevalence found in Scotland not only potentially harmed nurses’ own health but could also reduce the impact of public health advice they provide to patients, said the research paper.
Previous studies have found nurses are effectively seen as role models and that the general public has less confidence in advice about diet and exercise if provided by an overweight nurse.
“The high levels of overweight and obesity observed in our study raises some concerns about the effectiveness of health promotion that is reliant on seizing ‘teachable moments’ during routine patient interactions,” said the paper.
Reasons behind the high levels of weight problems were unknown, it added, but were likely to have resulted from individuals’ health-related behaviours and occupational factors.
“Our findings have important implications for… the development of supportive workplace interventions for nurses”
Edinburgh Napier University nurse obesity study
The study paper noted that individuals’ health-related behaviours such as poor diet and low levels of physical activity, which are known to increase the risk of overweight, had been found in around half of UK nurses from previous research.
Occupational factors including lack of access to healthy food in the workplace and working shifts – which disrupt regular sleep, eating and exercise habits – were also highlighted as potentially having an impact.
But, the paper noted, the fact that other countries where nurses also work shifts had lower prevalence of overweight meant this may not explain the much higher levels in Scotland. It called for more research in the area.
“Our findings have important implications for health promotion policy, nurse education, and the development of supportive workplace interventions for nurses,” said the study paper.
It suggested student nurses in Scotland should be targeted by using undergraduate courses to promote healthy eating and exercise behaviours.
“Curricula might incorporate more teaching about nurses own health behaviours, as well as opportunities to establish healthy habits through timetabled or extra-curricular exercise classes,” it said.
“Campuses might incentivise and normalise healthy food choices, and educators might consider how their own role modelling influences students’ health-related behaviours,” added the paper.
The researchers also noted that knowledge about healthy choices alone may not be enough to bring down the high levels of obesity and overweight, and called for more research into this issue.
“That such high prevalence of overweight and obesity is evident among a health literate group, suggests that either cognitive dissonance or structural factors may be more influential than health knowledge,” they noted.
The study used information from 13,000 people across the adult working population who took part in the Scottish Health Survey between 2008 and 2012.
It included around 400 nurses, 300 other healthcare professionals, around 700 unqualified care staff and 12,000 people in jobs outside of health.
The research forms part of an ongoing project led by Edinburgh Napier University called the Nurses’ Lives Research Programme.