Obesity and Work: Challenging stigma and discrimination

Press Releases

16 May 2019

Obesity and Work: Challenging stigma and discrimination

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) is pleased to announce the launch of a new report, Obesity and Work: Challenging stigma and discrimination.

The research, first presented at the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) conference on Thursday 16th May; and ahead of European Obesity Day on Saturday 18th May, looks to enhance workplace practice surrounding a condition that many believe has reached epidemic proportion and is of global concern.

Rates of overweight and obesity are still rising at an alarming rate. In the UK almost 7 out of 10 men and 6 out of 10 women are affected by the condition. There is still the common perception that obesity is caused simply by an increased calorific intake and decreased physical activity, but research indicates the causes of obesity are multi-factorial and complex, including socio-economic factors.

Having a greater understanding of the causes surrounding obesity is critical when considering what prevention strategies different stakeholders could develop to reduce the risks of obesity developing and what treatments may be more beneficial – with one of those key stakeholders being identified as employment.

The effects of obesity extend to working life, with issues related to productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism, as well as the level of discrimination that people with obesity can face at work, the likelihood of being employed with obesity and opportunities for promotion and progression. 

Dr Zofia Bajorek, IES Research Fellow and co-author of the report, said: “Research into both health and wellbeing at work and obesity at work has developed over the last decade, but with a changing and ageing workplace, both topics are going to continue to be relevant for employers and society, consequently it is important to keep up the awareness of these issues for researchers and policy makers. 

“For employees with obesity there are still many barriers that need to be addressed, so their needs can be effectively supported. We recommend an education piece around obesity, as stigma and discriminatory practices are still common place; and as research has suggested, work can be a cause of obesity, as well as be affected by it. Workplaces need to be an environment where people feel respected and valued whatever their size, and to do this, non-discriminatory cultures need to be developed. There is still a clear need to fight this stigma around obesity and enhance workplace practices to help those with the condition.”

For interest:

■          A range of evidence suggests that shift-work can have an impact on employee obesity levels, as a consequence of a range of factors including eating behaviours, changes in metabolism and sleep patterns.

■          Employees who undertake long working hours, particularly if this is based in hostile working environments, may be at a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese.

■          Job design could have an impact on the development of obesity – for example employees with reduced autonomy, few opportunities to participate in decision making and increased psychosocial stress may be more at risk of overweight and obesity.

■          There is evidence to suggest that employees who are overweight and obese take more days of sickness absence in comparison to ‘normal weight’ employees.  Research has also suggested that increased sickness absence results from obesity related health conditions.

■          Levels of presenteeism were also reportedly higher among employees who are overweight and obese and this can lead to direct and indirect costs for organisations.

■          Research discussing the link between obesity and unemployment has suggested that being obese could be both a cause and consequence of unemployment.

■          A large range of studies indicated that obesity discrimination is prevalent in the recruitment process and with questions as to whether obese employees have the ‘desirable characteristics’ or ‘fit’ for the organisation.

■          Evidence suggests the existence of a pay disparity, with overweight and obese employees displaying reduced wages (even when all other factors were controlled for).

■          Discriminatory practices were also evidenced in progression and promotion opportunities, with common stereotypical beliefs about obese employees being ‘lazy’ and ‘lacking self-control’ still prevalent.

■          There is a small amount of evidence to suggest that being obese has led to wrongful termination of employment, but more research is needed in this area.

■          A number of individual workplace obesity interventions have been discussed, which usually focus around both diet and lifestyle modifications and weight management support programmes which can be both undertaken and supported by workplaces. 

■          Organisational stigma can still be a barrier with regards to workplace interventions, however evidence suggests that the best practices are those designed to meet the needs of their employees and combine both educational and practical interventions.

■          Interventions also need to address organisational design and work practices, and ensure that correct management support is provided.


About the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

The Institute for Employment Studies is a leading independent, not-for-profit centre for research and evidence-based consultancy on employment, the labour market and HR policy and practice.

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Interviews and further information

Please contact Steve O’Rourke, IES Senior Communications Officer on: +44 (0)1273 763 414 or steve.orourke@employment-studies.co.uk