It isn’t surprising that the Canadian Mental Health Association reported 41 per cent of adults saw a decline in their mental health due to the coronavirus pandemic — it’s been the perfect storm of stressors, particularly for people living with obesity, said Stéphanie Ipavec-Levasseur, product director of health insurance at Desjardins Insurance, during Benefits Canada‘s 2021 Mental Health Summit.

“It has been an exceptionally rare combination of many major stressors, such as psychological, social, financial and physical uncertainty.”

During the pandemic, many Canadians replaced their healthy coping mechanisms with adverse behaviours, such as a 28 per cent increase in eating and a 57 per cent rise in screen time. Adults living with obesity are more vulnerable and have an increased risk of severe illness from the coronavirus and a tripled risk of hospitalization, in addition to an increased risk of stress, anxiety and depression levels that were known pre-pandemic.

Read: Applying chronic disease principles to supporting plan members with obesity

“The slow pandemic of obesity has intertwined with the fast pandemic of COVID-19, but we’re only focusing on the acute threat, not the chronic threat,” said Ipavec-Levasseur. “It is important to remember that obesity was already a pandemic before COVID-19.”

Obesity Canada and many other health organizations have recognized that obesity is a chronic disease, just like high blood pressure or diabetes. The top health risks for a person living with obesity include a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, in addition to a five-times greater risk of major depression. “Obesity is a chronic illness caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, emotional health and the environment, to name a few,” she said.

Like the stigma related to mental health, there’s also stigma about weight and obesity. According to research, 54 per cent of adults with obesity have reported being stigmatized by their co-workers. “We have to work together to change the way we think about obesity so that we can eliminate the stigma and discrimination,” said Ipavec-Levasseur.

Support for employees living with obesity can lead to positive health outcomes. A weight loss of five to 10 per cent can lead to a 58 per cent reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes, in addition to reductions in heart complications, joint disease and pain.

Read: Employers should rethink approach to helping employees with obesity

Employers can help employees living with obesity, starting with the development of a psychologically safe and supportive workplace, which includes communicating expectations for civility and respect, she said. Employers can also encourage employees to use available health resources, such as employee benefits, employee assistance and community programs. However, “it’s important to remember that there are specific treatment options for managing obesity,” said Ipavec-Levasseur, noting employers should also “address any barriers that are preventing a person from getting help if they need it.”

A healthy weight program shouldn’t only consider diet and food, she added. “We think that’s simplistic and needs to be looked at in a more holistic way.”

She suggested programs also include access to resources, such as an interdisciplinary care team with doctors, nurses, nutritionists, psychologists and kinesiologists to “attack not only the symptoms, but also the root causes.”

As medicine evolves and employers improve their understanding of diversity and stigma, “we need to evolve benefits accordingly,” said Ipavec-Levasseur. “Treatment for obesity should be covered like any other chronic disease. For example, there are drugs that are used by doctors to treat obesity, which should no longer be considered ‘lifestyle drugs.’ Desjardins has been covering drugs for the treatment of obesity without prior authorization in our standard service offer since July 1, 2021.”

Employers can make a dent in the obesity pandemic by acknowledging that obesity is a life-long chronic disease, removing barriers to allow employees with obesity access to the help they need and addressing potential stigma.

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.