One in four British adults are obese and 62% of adults are classified as overweight. The obesity epidemic is often talked about and a variety of policies are being implemented to try to tackle it. It’s important to address it because of the number of costs associated with it including individual level health outcomes and costs to the NHS. But why should organisations consider obesity? Research suggests that there are specific costs to the workplace; obesity at work is associated with: more frequent absence, due to related health conditions, and less productivity. Employers are trying to address obesity through health promotion and wellbeing strategies but another way of addressing it may be through addressing obesity stigma. There have also been calls for obesity to become a protected characteristic, so employers may need to implement training and policies to address this legislation. Additionally, they will need to be aware that if they are discriminating against someone on the basis of obesity this will have serious implications. In the recent Business In The Community physical activity, healthy eating and healthier weight toolkit for employers one of the checklist actions asked are you empowering employees and managers to challenge the stigma of obesity in the workplace? However, how many organisations currently have policies or training in place to address obesity stigma? Given the increasing prevalence of obesity and the associated increase in obesity amongst the workforce organisations need to consider how to address this stigma.
In addition to the calls for obesity to become a protected characteristic, in 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that obesity can be considered a ‘disability’ if it causes physical, mental or psychological problems that adversely affect an individual’s ability to work. The implications of this are that in the UK under The Equality Act (2010) obese individuals may be covered under ‘disability.’ Aside from the legal reasons employers should also consider obesity stigma because of the negative health outcomes associated with obesity stigma which may result in higher costs in terms of health promotion and health insurance. Obesity stigma will also have costs for employers in terms of negatively impacting the talent pool, if obesity stigma is displayed at for example, the recruitment and progression stages of the employment cycle organisations may be missing out on talent.
Weight stigma is defined as “negative weight-related attitudes and beliefs that are manifested by stereotypes, rejection and prejudice towards individuals because they are overweight or obese” (Puhl, Moss-Racusin, Schwartz & Brownell, 2008, p. 347). Society, particularly the media, continually emphasises that the management of obesity is within an individual’s control and often the rationale is that weight stigma will motivate individuals to lose weight. However, research suggests this is not the case. There are also many stereotypes specifically associated with obese individuals at work; these include: laziness, lack of self-discipline and lack of self-control, characteristics that are clearly not viewed as positive traits at work.
Research shows that weight discrimination is experienced in many contexts, with some researchers claiming that ‘weightism is the new racism.’ One of these contexts is the workplace (Spahlholz, Bar, Konig Riedel-Heller & Luck-Sikorski, 2016) and a variety of studies have shown that obesity stigma at work exists. One self-report study found that amongst obese and overweight women, 25% stated they had experienced job discrimination due to their weight, 54% stated they had experienced weight stigma from colleagues and 43% had experienced weight stigma from employers or supervisors (Puhl and Brownell, 2006). Research has also examined wage outcomes. Within EU countries, Brunello and D’Hombres (2007) found that a 10% increase in average BMI was associated with a decrease in hourly pay of 1.9% amongst men and 3.3% amongst women. Rudolph, Wells, Weller and Baltes (2009) showed a medium effect of weight-based bias amongst evaluative workplace outcomes, such as hiring, performance and promotions. In our recent systematic review, we found 38 studies that met the eligibility criteria and they showed that stigma was shown in numerous forms: from being rated more negatively, to being less likely to be recommended for hire, receiving harsher discipline, lower training expectations and even being less likely to be selected for a supervisory position. However, much of the research had been conducted within the recruitment stage of the employment cycle and many of the studies were hypothetical.
We concluded that very little is known about the experiences and outcomes of obesity stigma once an employee is within an organisation and that there is a paucity of research that has explored how to address obesity stigma at work. We are therefore conducting a three-phase UK based research programme to address this gap.
We are currently looking for individuals who have a BMI of 30 or more who would be willing to talk about their weight and work and share their experiences and HR professionals who would be willing to talk about obesity stigma at work and how to address it. If you are interested in participating in this PhD research at Kingston University, please email: [email protected]
Kate is a Research Consultant at Affinity Health at Work, an occupational health psychology consultancy and research group with a focus on workplace health, wellbeing and engagement. She is also a PhD student at Kingston University researching obesity stigma in the workplace and how organisations can address obesity stigma.