People Management: Employers ‘must do more to end obesity discrimination

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Employers must do more to fight stigma and discrimination around obesity in the workplace, including prejudicial practices in recruitment, researchers have said.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES), which presented a new report at the European Association for the Study of Obesity conference yesterday, said obesity had reached “epidemic proportions” and that employers needed to enhance workplace practice in this area.

The report said it was clear that the stigmatisation and discrimination of those with obesity was still a pervasive issue and was prevalent in employment.

It revealed that many employers lacked knowledge regarding the causes of obesity and still viewed it as “something that people can control”, resulting in the development of negative views about obese employees’ behaviour, when in reality the causes are multifaceted and could include workplace factors. 

The report also suggested that hiring decisions may be based on whether applicants fit the “representational image or projection” of the organisation and role, and highlighted discriminatory practices in progression and promotion opportunities.

It said common stereotypical beliefs about obese employees being “lazy” and “lacking self-control” were still prevalent.

Dr Zofia Bajorek, IES research fellow and co-author of the report, said discriminatory practices around employees with obesity were “still commonplace”, and her report found that work can be a cause of obesity, as well as being affected by it.

“Workplaces need to be an environment where people can feel respected and valued whatever their size, and to do this, non-discriminatory cultures need to be developed,” Bajorek said. “There is still a clear need to fight this stigma around obesity and enhance workplace practices to help those with the condition.”

According to 2017 statistics from Public Health England (PHE), 67 per cent of men are overweight, of which 30 per cent are obese. Similarly, 62 per cent of women are overweight, with 30 per cent of these classified as obese.

The IES report points employers to existing guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) that says workplaces can have an impact on an individual’s ability to maintain a healthy weight, both directly by offering healthy eating choices and opportunities for physical activity and indirectly through the overall culture of the organisation.

The NICE guidance said the workplace was a “logical and natural setting” to support people in maintaining a healthy weight given the amount of time people spend at work, and found improvements in workforce health could lead to improved productivity and reductions in absenteeism and healthcare costs.

According to PHE, 16 million days of sickness absence reported in 2014 were linked to obesity, and another study detailed in the IES report found that obese workers were significantly more likely than their counterparts to produce poor quality work or report limitations in the amount or type of work they are able to do.

The IES report did note that workers’ potential physical limitations as a consequence of their obesity might be a legitimate reason for not hiring someone, particularly if physical fitness was a crucial aspect of the role, but said care should be taken when using this as a reason for not hiring an individual.

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, told People Management that employers should be aware obese employees may be classed as disabled in certain circumstances and be protected against discrimination.

This could happen, he said, if obesity fell within the definition of disability – a precedent not yet set in the UK – or where obesity was caused by a health condition that fell within the definition of disability.

“It is crucial that managers are aware of the need to make reasonable adjustments if the employee is facing workplace disadvantages because of their disability, and they need to undertake conversations on this topic in a sensitive and appropriate manner,” he said.

Willis added there was a risk that obese employees may feel segregated, bullied or even harassed by their colleagues because of their obesity, and that harassment, diversity and workplace conduct training should be used to remind employees of appropriate workplace behaviours and the need for professionalism when engaging with colleagues regardless of their appearance, gender, ethnicity or disability.