Obesity stigma at work - the weight of evidence is growing

Blog posts

4 Mar 2020

Stephen BevanStephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow


Stigma at work has a long history. Faced with a choice between 3 candidates for 2 vacancies, a 1984 study of stigmatising attitudes among US business students found that they favoured candidates with a history of mental illness and ex-offenders over candidates who were obese. Of course all three groups are subject to unacceptable stigma in employment, but the fact that obesity was so harshly judged in the study has some echoes in the contemporary experiences of many workers living with obesity.

Today is World Obesity Day and IES has been looking at the factors which underpin the still very pervasive stigma and discrimination in employment settings which surrounds this controversial topic. Indeed, we presented the conclusions of some of our work at this week’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Obesity in Parliament this week.

Of course obesity is widely recognised as a major public health challenge. It is a risk factor for a number of other health conditions that can affect attendance and performance at work. These include osteoarthritis, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, depression and anxiety. Each of these can be associated with what are called ‘functional impairments’, which can affect what doctors refer to as ‘activities of daily living’, including employment. Public Health England estimates that up to a third of working age people are obese and that obesity-related ill-health accounts for 16 million days lost through absence each year.

As well as the health challenges, many working-age people living with obesity experience considerable stigma and discrimination both in the jobs market and in workplaces. Forty-five per cent of employers say they are less inclined to recruit obese candidates, obese people are less likely to be regarded as able leaders or to have career potential, they have lower starting salaries, are more likely to experience bullying and harassment, and obese women are less likely to get customer-facing jobs. It’s also clear that, in some sectors, women (and to a lesser extent, men) living with obesity face a wage ‘penalty’. One study found that a 10 per cent increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) was associated with a 2 per cent hourly decrease in pay among men and almost 4 per cent among women.

Women are 16 times more likely to report weight-related employment discrimination than men and recent cases in the airline industry suggest that the weight of mainly female cabin crew has become a contested area – is demanding that female staff lose weight a safety issue or just another manifestation of stigma and the so-called ‘aesthetic labour market’ at work?

So what do employers need to do to improve outcomes for workers living with obesity? The 2013 European Court of Justice ruling, the Kaltoft case, shows that functional impairment (e.g. reduced mobility) resulting from extreme obesity (but not obesity per se) can be considered as coming under the scope of equalities legislation as a ‘protected characteristic’. As a consequence employers need to be prepared to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ to help people remain in or return to work.

But negativity, stigma and discrimination also reflect societal attitudes and there are limits to what the law can do to mitigate them.

At the root of the problem of stigma is the persistent belief that obesity is ‘volitional’, that is, a lifestyle choice. This belief remains strong among the general public, some journalists and even GPs. One of the core messages from the Government Office for Science’s 2007 Tackling obesities: future choices report is that – despite the persistent belief that obesity has a simple set of causes, and therefore a simple set of solutions – there needs to be a more systematic approach to tackling a worsening problem, and better education has to play a part. It‘s also easy to characterise any efforts to support employees with obesity-related illnesses or health conditions as an indulgence that ignores what some insist is the ‘self-inflicted’ nature of being overweight.

Most of the World Obesity Day coverage will inevitably focus on the public health story, the responsibilities of the food and drink industry, the debate about whether BMI is a meaningful measure and whether ‘fat-shaming’ on social media platforms can be successfully challenged. Amongst all of this IES is confident that the employment challenges faced by people living with obesity are now starting to get the attention they deserve and we hope to be stepping up our efforts to shine a light on this important topic throughout 2020 and beyond.

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