Should obesity be a 'protected class' at work?

by Emily Douglas05 Oct 2018

Obesity is a first world problem and one which is only growing in concern. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, with 39% of adults classed as overweight and 13% as obese.

In the face of such worrying statistics, is it time organizations look at overweight employees in a different light? Should obesity be classed as a protected characteristic in the workplace?

A 2008 study from Yale University found that 40% of overweight people have experienced weight discrimination, with most of that prejudice manifesting in the workplace.

Recently, Stephen Bevan, head of HR research at the Institute for Employment Studies, made international headlines after suggesting that companies make allowances for overweight workers. He suggested allowing obese employees to start work an hour later in order to avoid the rush hour chaos.

Speaking at the conference, Bevan said: “We need to co-ordinate our efforts so that people who want to work can do so.

“It can be working time, it can be having a bit of understanding that someone might need to turn up at 10 o’clock because they have trouble with transport or anxiety about transport.

“I don’t think enough [employers] regard being overweight and obese as part of the family of conditions or impairments that they need to do something about.”

But it’s not just workplace anxieties that overweight employees have to deal with – the recruitment process is undoubtedly more harrowing too. A report from Bartels and Nordstrom found that obese women, more so than obese men, are likely to be discriminated against in the hiring process. This, as the Fredrickson and Roberts’ Objectification Theory suggests, is due to society’s sexual objectification of women and the beauty standards imposed on females in the workplace.

And whilst this obesity bias may be rooted in societal expectations, it could be seen to reflect organizations’ renewed interest in fitness and wellbeing.

HR leaders have to walk a delicate line here. Essentially, by making allowances for overweight staff, does it seem as if brands are supporting unhealthy lifestyles?

Lifestyle expert Professor Christopher Snowdon remarked: “This is a ludicrous idea that will only create resentment against obese people if it were implemented. Being fat is not a disability and the majority of people get to work by car, so it is difficult to see why obese people should be given an extra hour to arrive.

“If obese people are to be given special privileges, should we not also give special privileges to smokers, alcoholics and compulsive gamblers? Where does it end?”

In a health-conscious world, where companies are constantly reaffirming their commitment to employee wellbeing, does granting overweight workers additional benefits fly in face of corporate values?

A recent CIPD survey looked into health and wellbeing trends, and how companies’ commitment to these values increase employee engagement. Forty-four per cent of employee admitted that their firm’s wellbeing strategy has had a direct impact on their morale, 35% said it helped to foster an inclusive culture and 31% claimed it lowered sickness absence.

These statistics raise an incredibly important point – are you responsible for obesity in your workplace? You have to take into consideration the costs involved in dealing with obese workers – chiefly through lost productivity and sick days. But, instead of focusing on the negative, why not use this as an opportunity to mix up your internal culture?

Pushing your ideals on an employee probably won’t go down too well – but choosing to throw alcohol-free office events or 15-minute exercise breaks could be the way to show your support and commitment to staff health.

As with everything in HR, it’s essential to approach situations on an individualistic level. If you think one of your employees needs or deserves to have some concessions made for their peace of mind, then that’s something to discuss in a one-on-one meeting.