Although millions of Americans have received vaccines for COVID-19, the nation’s health crisis is far from over. Many adults have reported undesired changes to their weight, increased drinking, and other negative behavior changes that may be related to an inability to cope with prolonged stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America poll.

The survey of U.S. adults, conducted in late February, shows that a large majority of adults (61%), experienced undesired weight changes — weight gain or loss — since the pandemic started, with 42% reporting that they gained more weight than they intended.

On average, they gained 29 pounds (the median amount gained was 15 pounds), and 10% said they gained more than 50 pounds, the poll found. Such changes come with significant health risks, including higher vulnerability to serious illness from the coronavirus.

An employers’ role in weight loss
Having a goal to lose weight that was gained during pandemic restrictions may seem like a personal one, but employers have a stake in the outcome as well. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is directly related to higher levels of absenteeism from work.

One of the first steps employers can take is to help educate employees about the dangers associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Provide information detailing the health problems associated with excess weight and strategies to counter them. Above all, the top message should be that the organization is going to actively support those who are trying to lose weight. When employees are happy and healthy, their work product increases dramatically.

Taunton’s weight loss challenge
Early this year, essential employees at the Taunton Municipal Light Plant decided to tackle their 2020 quarantine weight gain with an eight-week weight loss challenge.

The challenge, developed organically by the participants, was considered a success, with 15 employees registering a total weight loss of more than 92 pounds. At the end of the challenge, two participants, a mechanical engineer and general foreman, were each awarded a cash prize of $150. One prize was for the most pounds lost, and the other was for the largest percentage of weight loss.

The weight loss challenge was developed and run by Eva Henault, a member of the Engineering Department. Henault volunteered to serve as the group’s coach and kept the challenge on track by sending motivational emails and reminders to help her fellow team members stay accountable for each week’s goals.

To adopt and maintain new habits, wellness research shows, it helps to not do it alone. Participants in the Taunton challenge held each other accountable each week for achieving their goals that they had set for themselves. The accountability and friendly competition helped everyone stay engaged.

Because of COVID restrictions, participants were not able to meet as a group for their challenges and had to resort to activities and contests they could do on their own and then share their results with the team.

Throughout the challenge, participants competed and cheered each other on via emails, photos and text messages, to stay on target as they tracked their steps, walked a mile each day, and completed their Monday weigh-ins each week on two new scales that were purchased for the main offices.

Healthy recipes and photos of what’s for dinner were shared. Several employees adopted a vegan approach, and others practiced a low-carbohydrate/low-sugar diet. A Nutri-Bullet blender was added to the staff kitchen to whip up healthy shakes and drinks.

Challenge participants are committed to maintaining their results and are already thinking up ideas for their next wellness challenge. And some employees have joined the Mayor’s Walking Challenge this spring.

Weight loss-friendly work environment
The following are few examples of simple and effective ways to support employees’ goals to lose weight and adopt healthier lifestyles:
• Invest in overhauling break room food sources and vending machines, replacing them with healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, nuts, low-fat yogurt and vegetables. Even the best-intentioned eating plans can be derailed by donuts in the break room. Highlight your organization’s commitment to healthy eating by tossing out the junk food.
• Encourage managers and employees to take walking meetings, if possible.
• If possible, make staircases accessible and encourage employees to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Offer incentives or awards for those who climb the most steps during a month.
• Offer a support group for employees, where they can meet other colleagues with similar weight-loss goals. If the budget allows, provide professional coaching to help employees stick to their goals.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, employers have a unique opportunity to address weight loss issues and help to promote better health. Weight loss programs that focus on giving employees the tools they need to implement sustainable lifetime habits to support their health will benefit everyone.

Written by Martha Keeley