Weight-based stigma and employment – an opportunity to have your voice heard

Blog posts

1 Feb 2022

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

 and access our survey here: https://bit.ly/33XrxN5   

As with the start of every new year, my inbox has been filled with ‘New Year, New You’ type emails, suggesting that a new diet or physical exercise regime is what I need to ‘get me into shape’ and to ‘set me up’ for the challenges that may lie in the year ahead. Whether intentional or not, these messages only serve to perpetuate weight-stigma (negative weight-related attitudes, beliefs and assumptions and judgements in society that are held about people living in large bodies).   

The ‘thin ideal’ (the degree to which we buy into what social standards deem to be attractive) that thinness represents health, morality and attractiveness, and even intellectual competence is perpetuated in these messages and by the media. People living with obesity are often portrayed more negatively than those of a ‘healthy weight’, with images of individuals engaging in stereotypical behaviours such as watching television and eating junk food implying that people living with obesity lack self-control. 

The Covid-19 pandemic also propelled obesity back onto the policy agenda. Research has suggested that people living with overweight and obesity were at higher risk of a positive test, hospitalisation, advanced level of treatment (e.g. mechanical ventilation and admission into ICU) and death as a result of contracting Covid-19. Boris Johnson even commented after his hospital admission that he was very ill because he was ‘overweight’ and ‘too fat’. The subsequent obesity strategy launched in July 2020 focussed on measures to reduce obesity, but was focussed on the ‘eat less, do more’ rhetoric, and ignoring the complexity of obesity and the number of factors that can lead to people living with obesity. This simplistic approach to understanding and ‘treating’ obesity creates barriers to effective progress in reducing its prevalence and shifting the debate away from the stigma that people living with obesity experience.

It has also been recently reported that one of the implications of lockdown is that it has ‘pushed millions more into obesity’, and that the number of young people in the US living with overweight and obesity jumped by more in just one year of the pandemic than it did over the previous two decades, which could have negative implications for health and other life choices in the future – including employment.

A recent publication by Ipsos Mori examined obesity stigma and suggested that there is an ‘empathy blind spot’ towards people living with overweight and obesity. Expressing negative opinions directly to people living with obesity was seen as valid, and a topic that other people have a right to discuss.  Despite developments in equalities legislation in the UK, increasing the awareness of the need for job markets and workplaces to be fair and open, weight-based stigma remains a common (and in some cases acceptable) feature of the UK labour market.

In November 2020, IES launched the Purpose Programme (Promoting Understanding and Research into Productivity, Obesity Stigma and Employment). The programme aims to bring light to the evidence that exists about the stigma and discrimination faced by working-age adults in the UK who live with overweight and obesity, and the practical consequences this has for their wellbeing, the organisations in which they work and the wider community.  The programme also aims to move from mere analysis to developing policy and organisational recommendations to shift the ways that employers make resourcing decisions and frame, connect and deliver policies which will give people living with overweight and obesity the best chance to live full and fulfilling working lives.

It is with this aim that IES launches a survey as the basis for the next Purpose Programme output.  Our first report, detailing results from an in-depth evidence review highlighted that weight-based stigma occurs at every stage of the employment cycle, with particular negative implications for women.  People living with obesity faced barriers at recruitment based on their appearance and not based on an employer’s perception of their ability in the role, are subject to a wage penalty, may not experience positive workplace relationships, have fewer opportunities for progression and employment, and may even have early exit from the labour market.

However, there is a need for a greater, in-depth understanding of the nature and prevalence of obesity stigma in the UK labour market and the implications that this has for both the individual and the organisation. Consequently, IES has developed a confidential and anonymous survey to try and answer such questions and use the findings to develop relevant stakeholder recommendations to improve the access to and experience of work for people living with overweight an obesity. 

We are asking for UK-based employees living and working with obesity to participate in our research, so we can capture your views and employment experiences. We would like to know whether you have perceived or experienced discrimination in the labour market, the implications this had for how you felt and/or how you worked, whether you sought help and advice and what you think employers can do to best support people living with overweight and obesity at work.  We would really appreciate your contribution to inform our research, so that weight-based stigma at work is no longer an employer and organisational blind spot.

The survey can be accessed here: https://bit.ly/33XrxN5

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