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Weight: the last acceptable prejudice at work?

“If I was faced with two equal candidates for a job and one of them was fat, I’d pick the thinner one. It might be prejudiced but it would make me think: why are they fat? Are they lazy? Do they have a health problem? Are they going to take lots of days off sick? I don’t want to take that risk.”

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day in the UK. A movement that recognises the gender pay gap and the fact that the average woman will effectively work until the rest of the year for free because she gets paid that much less than her male colleagues.

Employment discrimination comes in all shapes and sizes, not least the experiences of the obese employee.

A 2008 study by Michigan State University analysed thirty different weight-based discrimination studies. They concluded that obese people are discriminated against at work, particularly during the hiring process. Professor Mark Roehling, Associate Professor of Human Resources Management, who was part of the team carrying out the study, said: “Weight-based discrimination consistently affects every aspect of employment, from hiring and firing, promotions, pay allocation, career counselling and discipline.”

In 2004, Professor Charles Baum reported in the Journal of Health Economics that obesity could lower a woman’s earnings by as much as 6.2% and a man’s by 2.3%. Not only does this highlight the financial implications of being an overweight employee, but also that there is a difference in the prejudice experienced by men and women.

A study by King’s College London recently discovered that obese staff took an average of four extra sick days per year, so on the face of it, it seems employers’ fat prejudices could carry some weight. According to NICE, obesity could cost a company with 1,000 staff £126,000 a year.

The excuses employers give for their prejudice against overweight job applicants are varied: they will take more days off sick, they’re lazy, they have no self control, other employees may tease them and cause me a HR headache. So are they justified? Do fat people take more sick days and put strain on their workplaces?

It’s not necessarily correct to say that obese people take more days off because they are actually ill. According to the Workforce Institute, improving employee health will only reduce absenteeism by a third at most, because two-thirds of total absenteeism can be attributed to non-sickness: personal reasons, family issues or a feeling of entitlement.

It’s also important to consider the pastoral care that obese employees receive (or don’t receive) at work. A Canadian study in 2002 revealed that a higher proportion of obese men and women felt they received low levels of social support from their colleagues and managers. This lack of an important buffer against work-related stress may cause them to be absent from work more often.

Absent doesn’t necessarily mean sick

It’s not necessarily correct to say that obese people take more days off because they are actually ill. According to the Workforce Institute, improving employee health will only reduce absenteeism by a third at most, because two-thirds of total absenteeism can be attributed to non-sickness: personal reasons, family issues or a feeling of entitlement.

It’s also important to consider the pastoral care that obese employees receive (or don’t receive) at work. A Canadian study in 2002 revealed that a higher proportion of obese men and women felt they received low levels of social support from their colleagues and managers. This lack of an important buffer against work-related stress may cause them to be absent from work more often.

No long-term strategy

What’s more, avoiding overweight applicants is no long-term strategy. Worldwide obesity has already doubled since 1980. Levels are still rising and now almost two thirds of UK adults are overweight or obese. What can employers be doing to help not just new recruits, but also existing employees who may be struggling with weight gain?

In the UK, we often spend long hours sitting at our desks, working through our lunch breaks and enduring commutes by car or train. Add these sedentary working habits to an office culture full of birthday cake celebrations, Friday “treats” and lunching al desko and it’s easy to see why workers can find themselves getting heavier and heavier.

It’s commonplace to have a discounted gym membership as part of your company benefits package, but there are few people who don’t know about the benefits of exercise. For many, the key to tackling their weight issues will be to understand why and how they overeat in the first place, in addition to tackling the long periods of time they spend inactive during the average working day.