Weight-based stigma occurs at every stage of the employment cycle – it needs to stop now

Blog posts

30 Nov 2020

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek 
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.

The subject of obesity is something that everybody seems to have an opinion on – and more often than not, it is a negative one.  Last year, the American comedian Bill Maher said: “Being fat isn’t a birth defect.  Nobody comes out of the womb needing to buy two seats on the airplane.  We have gone to this weird place where fat is good… Fat shaming doesn’t need to end; it needs to make a comeback.  Some amount of shame is good.”

Did fat shaming ever go?  Not according to James Corden, the host of The Late Late Show, who responded: “Fat-shaming never went anywhere.  I mean, ask literally any fat person.  We are reminded of it all the time.”

And that is the issue.  For many the open discrimination against people living with obesity is still thought to be acceptable.  The simplistic diagnosis of “eat less, move more” approach to understanding and ‘treating’ obesity only serves to illustrate the limited awareness of obesity and overweight. It creates a barrier to any effective progress in reducing its prevalence and shifting the debate away from the stigma that people living with obesity experience, to the support they need.

Developments in equalities legislation in the UK has led to an increased awareness of the need for job markets and workplaces to be open, fair and inclusive.  However, despite this, weight-based stigma remains a common and (maybe for some, acceptable) feature of the UK labour market.  Alongside this has been the notable rise in the ‘aesthetic labour market’, where employers specify the personal characteristics they seek in their employees, to ensure the employees ‘look good and/or sound right’ to ‘fit’ into the workplace, regardless of whether they have the necessary qualifications.  Evidence also shows that the majority of employers think that obesity occurs as a result of poor lifestyle choices, or that it was preventable and futile to treat. 

But what are the implications of weight-based stigma for employment outcomes?  The first report from the Institute of Employment Studies Purpose programme has highlighted that weight-based stigma occurs at every stage of the employment cycle, with particular negative implications for women.  For example:

  • Weight-based stigma occurs at recruitment and selection as result of employers holding stereotypical beliefs that people living with obesity are lazy, less conscientious and incompetent.  However, and crucially in these cases, this was not a true reflection of an individual and their actual abilities, but just the employers perception of what an individual living with obesity may or may not be able to achieve.  Research also indicated that HR professionals who are usually trained and experienced in recruitment and selection processes to be aware of discriminatory or judgemental errors are also prone to display weight-based stigma when making such decisions.
  • There is overwhelming evidence that it is only women living with obesity who experience a wage penalty, with a consensus that the average gap in earnings was between 8-10 percent (although estimates ranged between 0-20 percent).  Our report calculated what this would equate to in real-term earnings, finding that if a women received a 9 percent wage penalty, this would equate to a £2,250 per annum wage penalty for all employed UK women living with obesity, equating to a wage penalty of £10.35bn each year.
  • Positive workplace relationships have been found to be important for workplace wellbeing and good work.  However, evidence suggests that employees living with obesity may not have such positive employee relationships, often citing occasions where they have felt isolated and embarrassed.  Often, employees living with obesity lacked a collective form of support to advocate for change.  Research also indicated that employees living with obesity experienced teasing comments about their weight, were excluded from work socials and gatherings, and had pressure put on them by their managers to be more active at work or comment on the amount of food they were consuming.  As a result of such stigma, employees living with obesity reported reduced wellbeing and reduced job satisfaction.
  • Weight-based stigma has also been found to be a barrier to professional success, progression and promotion.  Employees living with obesity have been assigned to unfavourable positions or challenging areas where there are fewer opportunities to perform well or to be recommended for higher positions, or have received more negative responses regarding leadership potential despite reaching all performance targets.
  • Finally there is evidence to suggest that an employee’s weight may be a factor when employment retention issues need to be discussed, and that it may lead to instances of wrongful termination of employment. 

Our report has clearly indicated that negative stereotypes about working age people living with obesity persist, and can deeply negative implications for both individual wellbeing and socio-economic outcomes that can stay with them for their whole career.  Through the Purpose programme we aim to move the dial from analysis of the evidence that exists about stigma faced by working age adults, to practical actions and responses from a range of stakeholders, that will have a positive impact on the working lives of people living with obesity, the wider economy and the society of which they are part.

To end, with the wise words of James Corden: “There’s a common misconception that fat people are stupid and lazy, and we’re not…While you’re encouraging people to think about what goes into mouths, just think a little harder about what comes out of yours.”

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.