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Weight stigma Mental health Prejudices

Weight stigma at work: Improving the workplace for everyone

People living with overweight or obesity may experience unfair treatment or negative judgement because of their weight and size, known as weight stigma. People living with obesity may face this discrimination every day in their personal relationships, schools, healthcare settings, and even in their workplaces.

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26% of people living with obesity and 31% of people living with severe obesity report experiencing workplace discrimination

Workplaces need to understand that creating weight stigma for those living with obesity can affect performance and productivity at work. This article aims to equip anyone who may be experiencing weight stigma at work with the tools and knowledge to engage in meaningful conversations with their employers and peers. Education can help to address the common misconceptions surrounding obesity that lead to workplace weight stigma, as well as self-stigma, to ensure that everyone is treated equally, regardless of their weight. 

Identifying weight stigma in the workplace

There are many misconceptions surrounding weight and obesity. Despite scientific research proving otherwise, some people continue to believe that living with obesity is a choice, and that it can be solved by simply eating less and exercising more. In the workplace, this may lead employers or colleagues to make unfair generalisations about people living with overweight or obesity, such as assuming that they are less productive, lack willpower, or are unfit for physically demanding activities and tasks.

These inaccurate and negative stereotypes can result in the unfair treatment of people living with overweight or obesity. For example, compared to those of average weight, people living with overweight or obesity are more likely to experience:

●      Lower wages 
●      Harsher discipline from employers
●      Fewer promotions 
●      Unfair hiring processes 
●      Wrongful job termination

45% of employers say that they are less likely to hire someone if they are living with overweight or obesity

Why it can be important to address weight stigma in the workplace

Some people believe that although weight stigma may make someone feel bad at the time, it’s a form of ‘tough love’ that will motivate them to lose weight and increase productivity. In reality, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; weight stigma negatively impacts people’s physical and mental health, which can then impact their performance and productivity.

For instance, a hostile workplace environment that makes people feel judged or stereotyped because of their weight may impact their self-esteem. When people’s self-esteem is affected, they may not feel confident in their work abilities, and they might miss more work days, take longer breaks for health reasons, or even retire early. Or, weight stigma may result in ‘presenteeism’, where employees will be in the office but don’t perform as well, perhaps due to low self-esteem or job satisfaction.

Weight stigma can also deeply affect the personal and financial lives of people living with overweight or obesity and their families. Studies have shown that people living with overweight or obesity (particularly women) earn between 8-10% less than those without obesity.

25% of women living with overweight or obesity experience job discrimination because of their weight and are 16 times more likely to report weight-related employment discrimination than males

We need to address the self-fulfilling prophecy of weight stigma and workplace productivity. Employers need to recognise that creating weight stigma for those living with obesity can affect performance and productivity at work. Employees who are suitably supported, listened to, and free from weight stigma and unfair treatment are empowered to bring their best selves to work.

Advice for those wanting to address weight stigma in the workplace

While there is no easy solution to address weight stigma in the workplace, there are several steps you can take to promote a fairer and more inclusive environment:

  • Education is key: Many people have a poor understanding of obesity, which drives societal weight stigma. So, challenge people’s misconceptions by explaining that obesity is a complex and chronic medical condition. Everyone deserves to be identified by their qualities, not their weight, so part of this education should encourage the use of people-first language, such as “a person with obesity” or “employees living with obesity” rather than “an obese person” or “obese employees”. If you’re interested in learning more about people-first language, read our article ‘Obesity and language: Why the way we talk about obesity matters’.
  • Zero tolerance : To prevent weight stigma and discrimination, you should ask your employers to implement a zero-tolerance policy for such behaviours and encourage a supportive workplace culture so that individuals feel comfortable reporting unfair treatment.
  • Resource availability:  Ask your workplace to offer supportive resources to improve employee health and wellbeing and ensure that they are easily accessible for all.
  • Inclusive policies:  Workplace policies can stigmatise and alienate employees living with obesity. Ask your employer to involve people living with overweight or obesity in conversations about workplace policies to ensure that all employees are considered and respected. Whether it's a decision about corporate clothing, furniture choice or types of team-building activities that allow everyone to participate, workplace policies should lead with compassion and acceptance.

While changing social attitudes takes time, you can take the first step by educating others and standing up for equality. Starting tough conversations about weight and obesity might seem challenging, but it paves the way for a more inclusive, respectful, and productive environment for all. 

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