'I had a bad back all the time and couldn't run'

Hide that chocolate on your desk. Put those crisps in your drawer. The "fat controller" may be watching - and he or she could be coming to an office near you.

Hide that chocolate on your desk. Put those crisps in your drawer. The "fat controller" may be watching - and he or she could be coming to an office near you.

In a move likely to be copied by other employers, BT is introducing nutritional experts to its offices in an effort to target obese employees, create a fitter workforce and reduce the days lost to weight-related illness.

BT, which employs 100,000 people, is bringing in the health monitors to educate its predominately ageing and male workforce into adopting healthy eating and exercise habits in a drive backed by trade unions.

The company estimates that about 4,000 of its staff across the country are at risk of health problems caused by unhealthy lifestyles.

The unprecedented fitness drive by one of the country's largest employers reflects the growing concern about the nation's weight problem, especially among men, who are more overweight than at any other time in history.

The proportion of men in England who are classed as obese has increased in the past 10 years from just over 13 per cent to nearly a quarter. By 2010, nearly a third of males in this country are expected to be obese.

Tomorrow experts will discuss new ways of tackling weight problems among men at a government-sponsored conference organised by the Men's Health Forum to mark the start of men's health week.

Android obesity - commonly known as the beer belly - is widespread among men, but many are reluctant to seek help from doctors and only a tiny percentage attend slimming clubs.

Dr Ian Campbell, an expert on men's health and obesity, said the nation's expanding waistline was a major cause for concern.

"Obesity is leading to escalating levels of staff on sick leave and to premature death," said Dr Campbell, president of the National Obesity Forum.

"There is no doubt that men are more reluctant to seek help than women and it's particularly a problem for middle-aged men. For UK plc, there are quite clear economic implications."

Doctors have traditionally measured obesity with the body mass index (BMI) - a person's weight divided by their height. However, medical bodies including the World Health Organisation now believe that girth size is a more accurate measure of how overweight a person is.

A waistline of more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women poses a health risk. The National Obesity Forum is lobbying the Government to set up a national gut index to record waist sizes across the country and to introduce national targets for belly size.

Research has shown that schemes by employers to tackle obesity have dramatically improved productivity levels.

In the US, employers have already introduced cholesterol tests for staff. Firms in the UK are starting to use these tests as part of free health screening programmes.

BT's flab-busting initiative will also include a major study, which will begin this autumn, into the health of its workforce.

The company is supported by the Communication Workers Union, which said the aim was to help staff at risk of heart problems and other weight-related illnessess, not to sideline them.

"Fitness programmes by companies reduce the risk of long-term problems," said Dave Joyce, national safety officer for the CWU.

"If we have a joint message then employees will be less suspicious and more likely to come forward. This is not about getting staff out of the door but giving them the support they need."

Additional reporting by Tom Anderson

'Getting up off the floor after a job was a major event'

Even as a schoolboy, Phil Hayes always knew he was overweight but always found excuses not to diet.

Being over 6ft tall meant that for years the self-employed plumber could hide the extra pounds until he ballooned to 26 stone. It reached the point where the 41-year-old had to rely on his staff to help him up off the floor when he attended to blocked sink pipes and leaking baths.

"I'd come to accept that I was going to die at an early age," says the father of one from Watford, in Hertfordshire.

"We would need to go into lofts, but I couldn't get on the ladder. And getting up off the floor after a job was a major event. I'd get staff to help."

The catalyst for his decision to lose weight was the day his daughter Katherine, now four and a half, came close to danger in a park: "She ran towards this roundabout and I was unable to protect her because I couldn't run," he recalls. "That made me come out of the closet and join a slimming club.

"If people eat healthily they work better. The Government should give more incentives to companies to re-educate their staff," he says.

At his heaviest, Neil Feeley weighed more than 19 stone and had a waist measurement of 44in. The forklift truck driver, who works for Morphy Richards, decided to take action when it became increasingly difficult for him to do his job properly. By changing his eating habits, Mr Feeley has now slimmed to 12 stone.

"You are on and off the forklift and having to bend down and pick stuff off the pallets," said the married father of one from Barnsley in South Yorkshire.

"I had a bad back all the time and couldn't run. They called me 'fatty' at work in fun, but I would just make excuses for my weight."

The 40-year-old former miner says employers should be more proactive in monitoring workers who are overweight and encouraging them to take exercise.

He says: "Men especially are frightened of going to the doctor, and it's a good thing for work to be involved.

"It's got to be done properly though, because when you are big you are embarrassed about your weight."

Sophie Goodchild