Individuals with overweight and obesity face pervasive stigmatisation, social devaluation, and discrimination because of their body size in our society in the UK. OEN UK has launched the ‘Stand Up to Weight Stigma’ campaign to highlight the nature and extent of this discrimination in various different settings and bring change. The first focus of the campaign is the workplace. In this guest post, Dr Zofia Bajorek draws on recent research to highlight the extent of weight-based stigma people with obesity face in employment.

Obesity is a challenging, complex, and controversial public health issue, and a topic that everybody seems to have an opinion on – and more often than not these opinions can be stigmatising for those living with obesity. Open discrimination against people living with obesity is still thought to be acceptable and is all too common in the media, in schools, in families and in employment.  

The simplistic “eat less, move more” approach to understanding and ‘treating’ obesity that is commonly proposed only serves to illustrate the limited awareness of obesity that is currently widespread. The approach actually creates a barrier to any effective progress in reducing the prevalence of obesity and shifting the focus of the debate away from the stigma that people living with obesity experience, to the support they need.  

The Purpose Programme (Promoting Understanding and Research into Productivity, Obesity Stigma and Employment) launched by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) focuses especially on the way in which employment and the labour market outcomes for those living with obesity can be improved.  The programme aims to shift employer and policy maker mindsets to provide employees with obesity the best chance of experiencing fulfilling working lives.

Weight-based stigma in the UK labour market

Developments in equalities legislation in the UK, have led to an increased awareness of the need for job markets and workplaces to be open, fair, and inclusive.  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 of what has been termed the ‘aesthetic labour market’, where employers specify the personal characteristics they are seeking for their employees, to ensure they ‘look good and/or sound right’ to ‘fit’ into the workplace, regardless of whether they have the necessary qualifications.

A recent IES report, Obesity Stigma and Work: Improving Inclusion and Productivity’, aimed to understand the prevalence and implications of weight-based stigma on employment outcomes. Key findings of the report included: 

  • The majority of employers are still very likely to think obesity is caused by poor lifestyle choices, is preventable and futile to treat.
  • Studies of women living with obesity found that 25% had reported experiencing job discrimination because of their weight, 54% reported weight-based stigma from their colleagues or co-workers, and 43% reported weight-based stigma from their employers or supervisors. 
  • Of those who had reported weight-based stigma in employment, almost 60% had experienced this type of mistreatment more that four times during their working-life. 

Examples of the weight-based stigma that individuals reported in organisational settings included being a target of derogatory humour or differential treatment.

Differential treatment happens at every stage of the employment cycle with particularly negative implications for women.  

Differential treatment throughout the employment cycle

Recruitment and selection

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.  Crucially, in these cases this was not a true reflection of an individual and their actual abilities, but just the employer’s perception of what an individual living with obesity may or may not be able to achieve.  

HR professionals who are experienced in recruitment and selection processes, and usually trained to be aware of discriminatory or judgemental errors, were also prone to display weight-based stigma when making such decisions.

Wage penalty

There was overwhelming evidence that when people living with obesity are employed, many (especially women living with obesity) are subject to a wage penalty compared to other women averaging between 8-10 % (but could be up to 20%).  

Our report calculated what this would equate to in real-term earnings, finding that if women received a 9% 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.

Workplace relationships

Positive workplace relationships are important for workplace wellbeing, but employees living with obesity in the literature often reported feeling isolated, teased, embarrassed, excluded from workplace socials and lacking collective support to advocate for workplace changes.  Managers were found to put pressure on employees living with obesity to be more active at work, or comment on the amount of food that they were consuming. 

Professional success, promotions and progression

Barriers to professional success, promotions and progression were also experienced by those living and working with obesity. Employees living with obesity were assigned to unfavourable positions or more challenging areas of work with fewer opportunities to perform well, or to be recommended to higher positions, even if all key performance targets were reached.

Finally, there was also evidence that an employee’s weight could be a factor in employment retention and that it may have led to instances of wrongful termination of employment.

Standing Up to Weight Stigma in Employment

The research clearly highlighted that negative stigma and stereotypes regarding employees living with obesity persist and that this can have negative implications for both individual wellbeing and socio-economic outcomes.  Progress needs to be made to shift mindsets away from this casual stigmatisation and thinking that obesity can be a cost on society, healthcare, and workplaces. Instead, there is a need to focus on how the productive capacity and the richness and diversity of the UK workforce can be improved and enhanced if this structural and systematic disadvantage faced by those living and working with obesity was removed.

Dr Zofia Bajorek is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. Zofia’s research interests include the role of line managers and the development of the employment relationship, the management of the psychological contract, the temporary and flexible workforce, and the health and wellbeing of the workforce, including the promotion of good work practices.