Press Story

  • Millions of workers are less productive, or just can’t work, due to obesity crisis, report finds
  • New analysis reveals constituencies most impacted by obesity and economic inactivity – see map here
  • Public support government intervention, to make the healthy choice the easy choice

Millions of people across England with obesity are seeing their weight negatively impact their work, reveals a new report by IPPR.

To counter damage to the economy, and to people’s lives, the report urges the government to commit to creating an obesity-free generation, through building a healthier food system – including a crackdown on ultra-processed foods.

Poor public health in England is substantially impacting both the size of the workforce and people’s productivity. However, this is not felt equally across the country. Four out of five of the worst constituencies for obesity and economic inactivity are in the North, while four out of five of the best are all in the South.

Constituencies such as Wansbeck (North East), Redcar (North East), North Durham (North East), Blackpool North (North West) and Sunderland South (North East) all have obesity rates of over 15 per cent and economic inactivity rates of over 45 per cent, researchers found.

Over three in 10 adults have obesity in the most deprived parts of England compared to close to two in 10 of adults in the least deprived.

In addition to barriers to economic participation, people living with obesity who are in work are more likely to find their health negatively impacts their work, partially due to a higher risk of becoming sick. Over half of people with obesity (55 per cent) reported attending work while sick, and that their sickness impacted their work, according to new analysis by IPPR, using YouGov data. This is equivalent to 2.2 million people over a four-week period.

The report makes clear that obesity is not an individual problem or a matter of personal blame, but rather a societal issue deeply rooted in poverty – and accentuated by our work and food systems.

While obesity is clearly bad for the economy, there are certain elements of the economy which are bad for obesity. A significant number of workers say that due to their current work-life balance, they rarely or never:

  • Exercise as much as they would like (37 per cent)
  • Cook and eat healthy meals (15 per cent)
  • Plan meals in advance (19 per cent)
  • Not feel tired after work, in the last four weeks (23 per cent)

The UK has the third highest proportion of people with obesity in the OECD, affecting one in four adults, costing the UK economy an estimated £98bn every year.

The report says that for too long, the government has focused on individual responsibility when it comes to obesity, but this approach has failed the health and prosperity of the nation.

The polling for IPPR found that around half of the public supports increasing taxes (52 per cent) and regulation (59 per cent) on ultra-processed food and drink manufacturers – compared to less than 10 per cent who want to see taxes and regulation decrease. Tackling this epidemic would be good for public health, good for the economy, and good for levelling up.

The think tank is calling on the government to deliver an obesity-free generation, through introducing policies such as:

  • Fixing the food system, by using taxes and regulation to make the healthy option the cheaper option
  • Using government procurement contracts to ensure ultra-processed foods are not being served in schools and hospitals
  • Working with employers to create conditions that promote the health and wellbeing of employees

Dr Jamie O’Halloran, senior research fellow at IPPR, said:

“Poor public health is holding back the UK economy, and obesity is playing a significant role. The poorest regions across England are feeling this epidemic the worst.

“This is not the fault of individuals. The government’s laissez-faire approach to public health has been a failed experiment. We need our institutions to step up to regulate unhealthy food, use taxes and subsidies to make the healthy option the cheaper option, and invest in the NHS, local councils and education so that health can be the cornerstone of UK prosperity.”


Chris Thomas is available for interview


David Wastell, Director of News and Communications: 07921 403651

Liam Evans, Senior Digital and Media Officer: 07419 365334


  1. Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request
  2. YouGov conducted nationally representative polling of 2041 respondents, of whom 319 were in employment and gave details on their BMI.
  3. Rates of economic inactivity were from published statistics from the ONS and rates of obesity from Active Lives Adult Survey, Sport England.
  4. IPPR (the Institute for Public Policy Research) is an independent charity working towards a fairer, greener, and more prosperous society. We are researchers, communicators, and policy experts creating tangible progressive change, and turning bold ideas into common sense realities. Working across the UK, IPPR, IPPR North, and IPPR Scotland are deeply connected to the people of our nations and regions, and the issues our communities face. We have helped shape national conversations and progressive policy change for more than 30 years. From making the early case for the minimum wage and tackling regional inequality, to proposing a windfall tax on energy companies, IPPR’s research and policy work has put forward practical solutions for the crises facing society.