Living and working with obesity: Employers must break the cycle of workplace discrimination

Blog posts

16 Jul 2021

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek 
Senior Research Fellow 

This blog is a comment piece from the PURPOSE programme (Promoting Understanding and Research into Productivity, Obesity Stigma and Employment). The programme, funded by Novo Nordisk, focusses on improving national productivity levels via better employment and labour market outcomes for those living with overweight or obesity.

Just this week, details of an employment tribunal were released detailing the level of stigma that an employee living with obesity experienced from another colleague in the workplace.  The employee living with obesity was referred to as a ‘fat porker’, told to ‘lose weight’, and at one point was given a large pair of men’s trousers to try on, leading to feelings of humiliation.  The colleague was ordered by the panel to undergo diversity and equality training, with the organisation highlighting that all employees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  We know from the first PURPOSE report that employees experience weight-based stigma and discrimination at every stage of the employment cycle, but there has been little discussion about the role of employers and actions that could be taken by workplaces to support people living and working with obesity.  

This new report, the second output of the PURPOSE programme, recognises that workplaces, especially those that are already engaged in health promotion, could be ideal environments in which people living with obesity could find support and advice. The evidence suggests that many employers are increasingly offering wider workplace interventions which aim to improve employee health and wellbeing.  Although we know that improved health and wellbeing is positive for both the individual employee and the organisation, some workplaces are still having to justify why investments should be made in the workplace for people living with obesity.  This could be based around three main arguments:

  • ‘The Moral Case’ - employers have a moral duty to ensure that all employees have access to good quality work, and that physical and emotional health and wellbeing is not affected by their work or working conditions.
  • ‘The Legal Case’ - employers have a legal obligation to ensure that employees living with obesity have access to employment and interventions that could help improve their health and wellbeing at work, and that risk assessments and workplace adjustments are made to make sure that employees living with obesity are not discriminated against at work.
  • ‘The Business Case’ - implementing workplace health initiatives for those living with obesity can help to optimise an employee’s productive capacity at work, to the benefit of the whole organisation.

The evidence found that weight management programmes fell into two main categories: those with an ‘organisational focus’ (on-site exercise programmes; healthy on-site catering, workplace adaptations to improve physical space); and those that are more ‘individual focused’ (programmes focussing on nutrition, physical activity, counselling and behaviour modification).  Within this, some programmes could be tailored to individuals, and some offered incentives to encourage participants to join and remain in the programme.  Although much of this comes from well-intentioned workplaces, there is a concern that programmes with an exercise or weight focus could inadvertently reinforce obesity stigma by promoting the common rhetoric that overweight and obesity can be easily resolved by eating less and doing more, achieved by the greater application of willpower on the part of the individual. 

The consequence of this could then lead to some people living with obesity to internalise the stigma they experience from the wider society and result in a reluctance to participate in workplace health programmes that could help them, and/or fail to access any other weight management advice or psychosocial help that could be of benefit to them in the future. 

Obesity stigma is also evident in the wider discourse around employee health and wellbeing and employee productivity, and the ‘harm’ of ‘cost’ that employees working with obesity can have for businesses and the wider economy.  If obesity stigma is to be challenged in the workplace, then now is the time to reframe this debate and focus on an asset-based view of workplace health and wellbeing, emphasising the full contribution that employees living with obesity can make if relevant support and workplace adjustments are made.

As such, we have developed a range of recommendations for key stakeholders in this field, to recognise that more can be done to help develop fair participation for employees working with obesity.

For government:

  • ‘Good work’ should be included in the Obesity Strategy, so employers understand the rights that all employees have to stay in, thrive in, and return to sustainable work.  It may be time to clarify obesity as a protected characteristic, making it clear that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for people living with obesity, and to avoid all forms of direct and indirect discrimination in employment settings.
  • Funding more research into workplace health and wellbeing programmes, especially for those who maybe considered more ‘at risk’ especially post Covid-19.
  • Health inequalities should be included as part of the levelling up agenda post Covid-19 with the understanding that work plays a fundamental role in shaping health and could be an important factor in the economic recovery.

For employers:

  • Any current workplace health and wellbeing practices and activities should be reviewed to ensure they are supportive and not stigmatising for those living with obesity.
  • Co-production should be considered when designing, implementing and evaluating employer-sponsored weight-management programmes, to eliminate any risks of interventions perpetuating weight-based stigma.
  • Language and framing needs to be considered – an emphasis should be placed on workability and the positive contribution and productive capacity that people living with obesity can bring to an organisation.
  • Weight-management programmes should be offered and advertised in non-stigmatising ways.  Attention should be placed on imagery and people first language should be used.
  • Programmes should not be obligatory and no-one should fear discrimination if they do not join.

For individuals:

  • Recognise that support is available if you experience stigmatising behaviour and discrimination at work.
  • If you would like support of weight-management serviced and have not found this easily accessible from your GP, your employer’s occupational health service (OH) could be in a position to help and could also help your line manager make changes at work to support you, so you can continue and enjoy and experience good work.

With the UK government’s 2020 Obesity Strategy placing a considerable emphasis on public health measures to prevent obesity, and to support people living with obesity manage their weight more effectively, now is the time to make greater reference to the role that employers can make. This includes a more substantive discussion about the action that could be taken in modern workplaces to better support people living and working with obesity.  If this occurs, then hopefully the stigma and discrimination experienced by people working with obesity will be resolved too.

Novo Nordisk has provided funding to the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to undertake the creation of the PURPOSE programme, including the production of this report. Novo Nordisk has had no influence over the content of this report or this programme. IES retains full and final editorial control over this report and all aspects of the PURPOSE programme.

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