Healthy body weight: workplace health
Workplaces should promote acceptance of all body types, shapes and sizes. Weight bias can affect hiring practices, wages, promotions, and employment dismissals.
Workplace interventions for weight
Workplace wellness interventions are designed to improve employee health and to reduce health insurance costs. Obesity prevention is a top pick for many wellness programs.
Obesity has been linked to many costly and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. However, ongoing research has shown that the relationships between obesity, health and disease are more difficult to understand than the public has been led to believe.
As obesity rates have climbed in Canada so have the pressures to be thin. Societal pressures for the “ideal body shape” reinforce myths that thinness is healthy, within reach and possible for all. This has resulted in a fear of weight gain and unhealthy weight control behaviours.
Bottom line: There is no simple fix
Obesity is a chronic and relapsing condition that requires long-term follow-up for most people. Although a variety of interventions can result in short-term weight loss, only a very small percentage of individuals will see significant weight loss over the long-term.
Unfortunately, when a person is unable to lose weight or maintain weight loss, it remains socially acceptable to blame the individual, their food choices and their activity levels for that failure.
This ignores the growing evidence that the socioeconomic environments in which people live, work and play influence their weight and their health.
What is weight bias and weight discrimination?
Weight bias refers to negative weight-related attitudes, beliefs and judgments toward individuals affected by excess weight or obesity. For example, people affected by excess weight or obesity are often viewed as less competent, lazy and undisciplined.
Weight discrimination is more than having negative attitudes: it can include acting or behaving unfairly or unequally towards people with excess weight. Discriminatory actions can range from saying hurtful things to avoiding, ignoring, or rejecting an individual, as well as making derogatory remarks, engaging in cyber-bullying or physically attacking someone.
What are the consequences of weight bias and weight discrimination in the workplace?
The 2012 Rudd Center’s Report: Weight Bias, a Social Justice Issue, Policy Brief, observed weight bias and discrimination in the following areas:
- Hiring practices: Job applicants affected by obesity were less likely to be hired than their thinner counterparts despite having identical job qualifications.
- Wages: When comparing wages for similar positions, females affected by obesity fare worse and are more vulnerable than males affected by obesity.
- Promotions: People with excess weight report fewer promotions and less challenging work assignments.
- Employment dismissals: Despite evidence of good job performance, there have been cases where employees affected by obesity have been fired, suspended or demoted because of their weight. This occurred even when their weight was unrelated to their job responsibilities.
The heavier the person, the more vulnerable they are to unfair treatment or discrimination because of their weight. To date, there are few legal options available to individuals who suffer from weight discrimination. Everyone deserves a fair and safe workplace environment and the new national voluntary standard, Psychological Safety in the Workplace offers a promising start in the right direction.
Key strategies to address weight in the workplace are to:
- Promote mental health and well-being. The World Health Organization definition of health states, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Rather than focusing on weight, define success as having a better quality of life, higher energy levels, a positive attitude about oneself and improved overall health.
- Choose obesity prevention interventions that target health behaviours instead of weight goals. Focus on measurable health behaviours that people have more control over. Weight is not a behaviour but an outcome that is influenced by personal and socioeconomic factors. Improvements in nutrition and increases in activity can result in health improvements for all, regardless of weight status. In other words, weight loss or weight change is not needed to see beneficial changes in health parameters such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels.
- Focus on wellness initiatives that target the whole group. Engage the whole workforce in wellness activities because everyone benefits from improving lifestyle behaviours. This avoids singling out anyone and can help avoid weight bias and stigma, strengthens relationships, builds camaraderie and models positive health behaviours across the organization.
- Create a workplace environment that supports employees to adopt health promoting behaviours. Encourage safe, supportive environments that build positive relationships. Explore actions that target the workplace practices or conditions that make it difficult for employees to adopt health promoting behaviours. Seek input and feedback for wellness goals from all levels and areas of the organization. For example, build skills for coping with stress, planning meals, or reducing sedentary behaviours at work.
- Promote acceptance of all body types, shapes and sizes. Major shifts in societal attitudes are needed to ensure people with excess weight get the fair treatment they deserve. Avoid penalizing employees with excess weight and discourage people from evaluating themselves or others based on the numbers on the scale. Instead, encourage everyone to reach for their best and enjoy a healthy, balanced lifestyle which includes eating well, moving well, sleeping well, and feeling well.
- Evaluate wellness initiatives. Explore what worked well, what did not work and if you reached what you set out to do. Be cautious of incentives for weight loss as it may result in employees adopting unhealthy lifestyle practices to keep their weight down.
Weight discrimination is on the rise
Individuals affected by overweight and obesity are vulnerable to weight bias, discrimination and unfair treatment. Weight bias and discrimination are rarely challenged and pose a significant threat to population health and well-being.
The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity examined trends of weight discrimination in the general population from 1995 to 2005. In that 10 year period, they reported a 66% increase in the prevalence of weight discrimination, meaning that discrimination became more widespread.
In the workplace
The 2012 Rudd Report on weight bias found that 43% of people reported that they had experienced weight bias from employers and supervisors and 53% experienced weight bias from co-workers. Weight bias and discrimination reduces the quality of life for employees with excess weight or obesity and can lead to blame and intolerance.
For example, when people with excess weight are singled out and offered unsolicited nutritional advice, it can be harmful to their mental health and well-being. Even though the advice may be well-intentioned, it is often based on assumptions that reflect weight biases held by the person giving the advice. Rather than motivating self-care, weight bias and discrimination has been shown to result in:
- eating more or binge eating
- avoiding physical activity and medical care
- unhealthy weight control behaviours
What can you do if you experience weight discrimination at work?
- Check to see if your company has a workplace bullying or harassment policy and complaint procedure.
- Depending on the situation, you may try to resolve the issue yourself by letting the person know how you feel. If you are not comfortable with this, speak to your supervisor.
- If the problem is occurring with your manager, take the issue to your Human Resource department.
- Be Prepared. Write down the events as they unfold and explore your feeling or concerns. Practice hard conversations in front of friends or family members. Ensure your emotions are in check so you can clearly express your thoughts.
- If needed, seek help from your Employee Assistance Program, a counsellor or a support group.
- Advocate for increased education and awareness of the damaging and lasting effects of weight bias and workplace discrimination.
What can your workplace do about weight bias and discrimination?
- Include language on weight bias and discrimination in organizational policies.
- Follow the Guidelines for Media Portrayals of Individuals Affected by Obesity (Rudd Center) when developing advertising or promotional materials. Consider using appropriate images of people with excess weight, which are available free of charge on the Canadian Obesity Network Image Bank or the Rudd Center Media Gallery.
- Focus on whole-group approaches that promote healthy behaviours for everyone. Encourage self-reflective activities and personal goal-setting.
- Promote acceptance of all body types, shapes and sizes. Employees should be provided an appropriate work station, no matter their size. Provide access to sturdy, armless chairs in common areas.
- Plan educational sessions on weight that challenge the norms about weight and shape.
- Monitor, discuss and train supervisors to appropriately intervene on issues of weight bias or discrimination.
- In addition to education on individual health behaviours, educate employees on the environmental, cultural, biological and genetic factors that influence lifestyle habits. Some examples include the food environment, occupational influences and sedentary work.
For more information:
To learn more about the programs available contact the Health Unit’s Workplace Health Team at 705.522.9200, ext. 290 or toll-free at 1.866.522.9200.
Weight Bias in the Workplace – Information for Employers (Obesity Action Coalition)
National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (Mental Health Commission of Canada)
- Bombak, A. (2014). Obesity, Health at Every Size, and Public Health Policy. American Journal of Public Health, 104 (2), e60-67.
- Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2010). Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 10.2105/AJPH.2009.159491, e1-e9.
- Campos, P., Saguy, A., Ernsberger, P. Oliver, E. & Gaesser, G. (2006). The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic? International Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 55-65.
- Cohen, L., Perales, D. P., & Steadman C. (2005). The O Word: Why the Focus on Obesity is Harmful to Community Health. Californian Journal of Health Promotion, 3(3), 154-161.
- Friedman, R. R., Pulh, R. (2012). Rudd Report, Weight Bias a Social Justice Issue. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, 1-12. http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/reports/Rudd_Policy_Brief_Weight_Bias.pdf
- Executive Summary. (2013). From Weight to Well-Being: Time for a Shift in Paradigms? A Discussion Paper prepared for the Population & Public Health Program, Provincial Health Services Authority.
- Pulh, R. Weight Discrimination A socially Acceptable Injustice. Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University. http://www.obesityaction.org/educational-resources/resource-articles-2/weight-bias/weight-discrimination-a-socially-acceptable-injustice
- Health Evidence. (2012). Improving nutrition and physical activity in the workplace: A meta-analysis of intervention studies. www.health-evidence.org
- Institute of Medicine. (2012). Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention Solving the Weight of the Nation. Washington DC.
- Allison, D.R., Dwyer, J. j. M., MacGillivray, A., Hawrychuk, S; Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion. A review of workplace and community interventions for adults: effects of physical activity, eating behaviours and BMI – risk factors for diabetes. Toronto, ON: Queens’ Printer for Ontario, 2011.
- Conference Board of Canada. Case Study (2011). Health and Wellness at Work What’s Weight Got to Do With It?
This item was last modified on June 2, 2022