What can be done about obesity in the workplace?

On Monday (5th December 2016), Dame Carol Black’s Independent Review into the impact on employment outcomes of drug or alcohol addiction, and obesity was released, with the aim to offer an evidence-based analysis of the factors that stand in the way of employment for those who are affected with these deeply complex problems.  The review recognised that these conditions can impose a great cost on both the individual and society, as well as significant labour market disadvantages – although, there was a recognition that obesity was different from alcohol and drug addiction, as a result of it being more common, having more indirect labour market consequences, and there being more difficulties in inferring a causal relationship between obesity and unemployment.

There has long been recognition that obesity is becoming more prevalent in England, as levels of obesity have been rising over the last 30 years, and will continue to do so.  Today 1 in 4 men and women are obese, with future projections indicating that by 2030 obesity levels in the UK could reach 50% of the population.  As a result of the high prevalence levels of obesity, it is recognised that many obese people will be in work.

So, what are the implications of obesity in the workplace?

In 2011, the Government released a call to action on obesity in England, where it was reported that obesity accounted for 16 million days of sickness absence.  However, what the true cause of absence is can be questioned because, as the review indicated, obesity rates tend to be higher amongst individuals with other long-term health conditions, including diabetes, heart problems and mental health conditions.  In the wider literature, there is evidence of widespread stereotypes about the productivity of obese people – they are often seen as lazy, lacking in self-discipline, less competent and less conscientious, and in the workplace these stereotypes can be translated to disadvantages (e.g. they can be penalised relating to wages, hiring, placement decisions and co-worker ratings).  With regards to the relationship between obesity and unemployment, the review concluded that a causal relationship could not be inferred, as obese adults are also likely to live in more socially-deprived areas and are likely to have poor qualifications.

What can be done?

The independent review concluded that from the evidence that currently exists about obesity and work, connected with the alarming projection of future obesity rates, there is a greater need to understand that relationship between obesity and labour market outcomes, and has recommended that research is commissioned to investigate the impact that obesity has on the working population.

What can we do?

The Work Foundation in partnership with Affinity Health at Work and the Institute of Employment Studies have developed a research project with the aim to recognise the issue of obesity and the prevalence of obesity discrimination, how can organisations best practically address obesity within the workplace.  The research includes exploring the current situation regarding obesity in the workplace and how this is addressed (including what organisations are doing to support those with obesity; how the obesity stigma is tackled, and what support can be given to managers to best help those with obesity in the workplace).   The research will also look at the history of the development of societal and organisational views on other (protected) characteristics – including mental health, disability, sexuality and race. The aim is to examine where these characteristics have parallels with obesity and where these break down, in order to understand what lessons can be learnt for obesity as it starts out on this ‘journey’.  The aim will be to support employers and policy makers to understand how to move to a mature approach to managing obesity in the workplace, in which stigma against obese employees is reduced (and eventually removed) so that the problems it presents can be addressed in constructive and collaborative ways.

What can you do?

We are looking for interested parties to help us fund this important research that we, and the independent review, have identified as a much needed and urgent to help support individuals with obesity enter and remain in the workplace.