Watching and weighing

1 March 2014

So should employers be walking the talk by supporting their nurses to maintain a healthy weight by supporting healthy lifestyle choices?

A number of district health boards support staff to exercise through hosting a range of inhouse exercise programmes or supporting staff in one-off events like fun runs or workplace challenges.

Currently, five district health boards run Weight Watchers at Work programmes. The research evidence is there for commercial diet programmes like Weight Watchers being effective in helping overweight and obese people lose weight in the short-term but the evidence about maintaining that weight loss long-term – i.e. five years or more-is mixed.

MidCentral District Health Board was an early poster child for Weight Watchers in the workplace, taking out the New Zealand workplace of the year in the 2009 Australasian Weight Watchers award, with 250 staff shedding a total of 1692 kg in a year. But it no longer hosts Weight Watchers on site.

Occupational Health Nurse Noeline King says hosting Weight Watchers was viewed as a healthy initiative allowing a wide range of staff, including nurses, to share in a collegial staff welfare programme. There were also seen to be potential benefits to the board for staff to be a healthy weight.

She says it also had its costs in organising meetings and setting up direct debits from staff pay.

“It wasn’t sustainable over time – neither the weight loss or time investment.” But King says the DHB does offer a number of health staff initiatives including access to bicycles for work-related commuting and its Next Steppers programme.

Waikato District Health Board started offering Weight Watchers on site in 2011 and for the first year it was free with the DHB and Ministry of Health footing the bill for about 350 staff to attend a Weight Watchers cycle of meetings.

Weight Watchers leader Jennie Poole says at the peak it was hosting 10 meetings a week on site. Waikato followed MidCentral in winning New Zealand Workplace of the Year in 2012, with staff losing 4200 kilos.

Media attention on DHB staff getting free access to Weight Watchers meetings attracted strong online public comment, with those arguing the money would be better spent on patients or that it was staff’s own responsibility to be healthy, outnumbering those in support.

Jan Adams, a registered nurse and Waikato DHB’s chief operating officer, says it initially funded Weight Watchers as it wanted staff to have access to a weight management programme and support them on their goal of losing weight and being healthy. It stopped funding them because it was mindful of budget constraints but kept hosting meetings as it still wanted staff to have easy access at work.

“We know from our results that staff found that to be really beneficial.”

Poole says the number of meetings has now dropped back to five a week and it has 63 ‘lifetime’ members on its books from meeting their weight loss goal.