Obesity at Work: Creating Offices for Everyone

Many offices have employees who are overweight or are obese, yet few are set up to accommodate them. This has knock-on effects on employee productivity, work quality, and well-being. Obesity presents unique challenges for employees in the office, such as increased risk of injury, less suitable equipment, and cognitive impacts. The good news is that people of all shapes and sizes can enjoy comfort at work with the right accommodations.

Obesity is typically classified by body mass index (BMI), an index built from the mass and height of a person. In other words, the higher one’s mass relative to one’s height, the greater the BMI. It isn’t a perfect way to assess obesity, but we discuss it here because it is the most common.

Impact of obesity in the workplace

Levels of obesity are increasing everywhere, and COVID-19 hasn’t helped. Forty two per cent of Canadians report having gained weight during the pandemic due to stress, closure of gyms, working from home, and eating more processed foods. This weight gain, combined with the rise of BMI-related issues, creates issues within office workspaces in terms of office equipment suitability, productivity, and the likelihood of injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back pain, and other musculoskeletal issues. A combination of weight reduction and ergonomic improvements could reduce the number and frequency of workplace injuries in this population.

Overweight and obese employees are more likely to report lower back, hip/thigh, knee, and foot/ankle discomfort. Much of this discomfort can be attributed to sitting in task chairs that aren’t suitable for one’s body size and shape. Fortunately, there are now task chairs available that can accommodate a variety of body types.

Office chairs designed for larger individuals typically have a pneumatic cylinder rated for a higher weight, larger seat pans, and swivel arm rests. Some companies create larger chairs that are the same style as their standard task chairs, which can be important in an office environment where employees may not want to stand out or feel stigmatized based on their chair. To minimize lower back discomfort, a proper fitting chair – for weight, size, and lumbar support – must be provided.

Ergonomic solutions

Lower back, hip/thigh, knee, and foot/ankle discomfort can also be caused by remaining in one position for too long, such as sitting at a desk. Height-adjustable workstations were designed to allow employees to alternate postures while working, but not, as some may think, to lose weight or replace exercise. It was found employees with obesity who used height-adjustable workstations had less discomfort overall, especially in the lower back.


If someone with obesity has access to a height-adjustable workstation, proper supportive footwear is recommended, and gel insoles may be beneficial. One should also adjust to standing at a desk gradually, limiting standing time to no more than 20 minutes at once, and sitting whenever there is discomfort or pain. Employees with hip or knee pain should be cautious when using height-adjustable desks and do so only after consulting a health professional.

Finding Balance

Overweight and obese employees are more likely to report elbow and hand/wrist discomfort which may develop into tendonitis, teno-synovitis, and/or carpal tunnel syndrome. This is commonly caused by using keyboards not suitable for one’s body size and not having the option to hold one’s arms and hands in a natural position while typing. 

Split keyboards have been shown to be effective in decreasing discomfort for people with obesity. For example, Kinesis split keyboards such as the Freestyle Pro Keyboard, Advantage2, Advantage360, and  Microsoft Sculpt help keep the wrist in a neutral position regardless of body size. When choosing a keyboard, consider its dimensions relative to the needs of the user.

If it wasn’t clear before, the pandemic drove home the importance of having office equipment appropriate to the individual, no matter one’s stature or size. There is an increasing awareness around the need to accommodate employees of any height; it shouldn’t be different for employees of any weight. EWI Works offers a variety of services to help your office space work for everyone. Contact us today to learn more about how we can work together to achieve this.