“I have eyes. I have ears. I have feelings.” Obesity discrimination at work must be challenged more effectively

Blog posts

17 May 2019

Zofia Bajorek

Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow

Just imagine for one minute that you are working competently in your role, and your organisation sends an e-mail memo to all staff: “Lose weight, or you will lose your job”.  For the cabin crew of Pakistan Airlines, this was not an imaginary scenario, this was a reality.  Earlier this year, cabin crew who worked for the airline were told that if they were overweight they would be grounded unless they lost their ‘excess weight’, and although there was no mention as to what the desired weight should be, the memo included that cabin staff are to be ‘slim, smart and fit’.  Additionally, when staff join the organisation they are issued with a suggested weight chart. 

You would hope that this is an anomaly, that organisations could not be that discriminatory towards employees who are overweight or obese.  Sadly, research indicate this not the case. 

As I write this blog, we are nearing the end of National Mental Health Awareness Week, and approaching European Obesity Day.  It is no coincidence that individuals who live with obesity usually suffer with a comorbid mental health condition, as the stigmatization and discrimination of those with obesity is still a pervasive issue, and prevalent in a number of domains including education, healthcare and employment.  This week I also attended and presented at the EASO Policy Conference 2019 looking at the social and economic impact of preventing and treating obesity.  The conference cleverly ensured that presenters came from a range of stakeholders and sectors, but most importantly gave those living with obesity an opportunity to have a voice and to describe their experiences. 

Those at the conference were made aware of struggles that those with obesity face in their everyday lives – sitting on chairs, walking up stairs, considering whether they will be able to fit in a public toilet cubicle.  In the employment section, there was a heartfelt and emotional story from an individual who although was hitting all their KPIs and were extremely competent in their role were told they were not eligible for a promotion – because of their weight.  They made the point that they did not choose to be obese, they were not lazy, they were not unproductive, yet they were still not given the same opportunities as those considered ‘normal weight’.  Another patient described how she tried to live her everyday life, feeling the negative thoughts that were expressed both verbally and non-verbally by society.  Her response was simple and thought provoking: “I have eyes.  I have ears.  I have feelings”

The rise in employee long-term health conditions can put an individual’s participation in the workplace at risk, and it is increasingly important to develop a work environment where everyone has a chance to fulfil their full potential.  In some areas we are seeing progression in this issue – the rise in mental health awareness is a really good example of this – but barriers and stigma preventing full participation at work still exists with obesity. 

There is still the underlying stigma that obese employees are lazy, less productive, not competent and do not ‘fit’ into an organisation’s culture, and among a majority of employees there it still the view that obesity is something that an employee has control of – even though obesity is a disease of which the causes are both multi-factorial and complex.  Research has also shown that overweight and obese employees can be discriminated against during a range of HR practices including recruitment, training, progression and retention.  But we also know that the way in which work is designed, undertaken and the way that social interactions are enacted at work can have an impact on obesity.

This seemingly ‘accepted discrimination’ in work regarding obesity has led to researchers to consider whether ‘weightism is the new racism’ (Bento et al., 2012), but has led others to argue that more needs to be done to tackle this.

In my opinion, there are a number of steps for action:

  • An education  piece is needed to understand what the root causes of the discrimination in employment are, and on the basis of this research should be undertaken to determine what steps employers need to take to help employees with obesity at work.
  • We need to have a clearer understanding about how obesity discrimination is addressed at work, and develop regulations surrounding reasonable adjustments at work to ensure that functional impairments resulting from obesity can be considered under equalities legislation.
  • Undertake a research and action piece to understand the role of a variety of stakeholders in the implementation and promotion of interventions to help prevent obesity at work.

However, before we can fully address the issue of obesity at work, the stigma surrounding obesity needs to be combatted if any interventions are going to be successful.  Those with obesity welcome talking about their condition, it may not be easy, but if it is done respectfully it is welcomed.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.