Alarming Obesity Rates Among Nurses

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One in four nurses in the UK was found to be obese, according to a recently published study. This has implications not only for the general health and well-being of nurses themselves but also for their role as health advocates in a world where obesity has become a pandemic.

The survey “Obesity prevalence among healthcare professionals in England: a cross-sectional study using the Health Survey for England” had a final sample of 20,103 economically active persons divided into nurses, other healthcare professionals, unregistered care workers and non-health care occupations. Obesity was defined as a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher.

One quarter (25.1%) of nurses in England was found to be obese, and this figure increased to nearly half (47.1%) for nurses who were over 45 years of age. In non-registered care workers, the prevalence of obesity was even higher at 31.9%, whereas for other health care professions the figure stood at 14.4%. Obesity amongst nurses, who could reasonably be expected to have a better knowledge of maintaining good health, was not significantly different from that in the general working population where the rate was 23.5%.

The study also highlighted the fact that high rates of obesity amongst nurses appears to be a global phenomenon, with the prevalence in England being lower compared to similar findings in other parts of the world: Australia (28.5%), New Zealand (28.2%), the USA (27.0%), South Africa (51.6%) and Scotland (29.4%).

These findings are a cause for concern, not only for the future quality of life for the individual nurses but also for employers and the health workforce as a whole, in terms of absence due to sickness and injury as well as the possibility of early retirement. Overweight nurses are at greater risk for musculoskeletal disorders, including workplace injuries, as well as mental health conditions. “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,” said Dr. Richard Kyle, lead author of the study.

Obesity amongst nurses also has implications for the quality of patient care and patient safety.

Obesity amongst nurses also has implications for the quality of patient care and patient safety. Obese nurses’ could find it difficult to perform certain physical activities due to an impaired range of motion and mobility, as well as in tight spaces – for example during resuscitation. Also concerning is that, as the largest professional group in healthcare, nurses have a key role in promoting health and advocating positive health behaviors in their day-to-day interaction with clients. Obesity is viewed as a global pandemic requiring urgent intervention and it has been shown that clients are less likely to accept health advice from health care professionals who are obese themselves.

The study authors encouraged policymakers and employers to adopt initiatives to help staff to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. “Investment in staff health would, in turn, benefit the health service in terms of sustainability and high-quality patient care via positive impacts on productivity, retention and absence rates through improved morale, job satisfaction, and well-being.” They also pointed out that further research is needed to understand the underlying reasons for the high levels of obesity amongst nurses.

As a nurse, you should ask yourself whether you are looking after your own health and whether you are a good role model for your clients. If not, take the steps necessary to improve your health – adopt healthier eating habits, with reduced sugar intake, and aim to improve your level of fitness. You can start with some daily exercises aimed at improving your fitness for the demands of nursing.

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Frieda Paton, M.Cur, RN
Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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