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Women Living With Obesity Are Short-Changed By Over £10 Billion A Year In The Workplace

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New research from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) indicates that when women living with obesity are employed, many are subject to a wage penalty of up to 13 percent, compared to other women.

The study also found that in addition to getting paid less than other workers, women living with obesity also experience lower hiring success, fewer opportunities for promotion, reduced workplace wellbeing, increased stress and a higher likelihood of being dismissed.  

By contrast, some studies suggest that men living with obesity enjoy a small wage premium and that men are only subject to a wage penalty if they are living with clinical underweight.

The findings come from a new report, Obesity Stigma at Work: Improving Inclusion and Productivity. 

The research is the first output of the PURPOSE programme (Promoting Understanding and Research into Productivity, Obesity Stigma and Employment). The programme, funded by Novo Nordisk, focusses on improving national productivity levels via better employment and labour market outcomes for those living with overweight or obesity.

The issue of obesity prevalence in the UK is a priority for both policymakers and healthcare professionals. The consequences of obesity for both individual health and the economy have been estimated to be up to 20 percent of total healthcare spending.

During the Covid-19 pandemic it has also been observed that those living with severe obesity are more vulnerable to the infection, often requiring more advanced treatment and, sadly, experiencing higher death rates. 

The report undertakes a detailed review of existing evidence-based research around obesity and overweight, looking at obesity prevalence in England and the Devolved Nations, causes and consequences of obesity for health and the economy, weight stigma prevalence and consequences, analysis of implications for employment and detailed recommendations for both employers and employees, healthcare professionals, the government and the media.

Research has found that weight-based stigma is rife in employment and occurs at every stage of the employment cycle, beginning at recruitment and selection – a consequence of employers not understanding the causes of obesity, often holding the stereotypical belief that those living with obesity are lazy, less conscientious and incompetent. 

The potential lack of social support from managers and colleagues that employees living with obesity can experience has resulted in reduced wellbeing, increased stresses, and maladaptive coping responses. 

Obesity stigma can also have implications for promotion and progression opportunities (once again seen more among female employees). 

When people living with obesity are employed, IES estimates that even at the lowest scale, a 2 percent wage penalty can result in a £2.3bn annual wage penalty for all employed women living with obesity in the UK, rising to £10.35bn at a wage penalty of 9 percent. 

Given the evidence of the life-course impact from living with obesity, this provides a further impetus to the evidence that childhood obesity can have a life-course impact on health, employment and economic outcomes.

Employees living with obesity may be more at risk when employee retention strategies are discussed, with evidence of discriminatory termination of employment occurring that were based on weight or perceived attractiveness and not performance or role-based evaluations. 

There is also a link between obesity and unemployment, with evidence indicating that employees living with obesity can experience higher levels and longer periods of unemployment.

Report co-author Stephen Bevan said: “Our research shows that the stigma of living with obesity is still affecting women in UK workplaces and in the so-called ‘aesthetic labour market’ for service sector jobs.

The obesity wage penalty cannot be explained by differences in health, qualifications or job performance and strongly suggests that discrimination remains a major factor.”

Co-author Dr Zofia Bajorek added: “For too many employers obesity seems to be the last acceptable form of discrimination and, while we welcome the various obesity strategies deployed by governments throughout the UK, we would like to see more emphasis on the role workplaces can play to support people living with obesity to thrive at work.”

Sarah Le Brocq, Director of Obesity UK and someone that lives with obesity herself, said: “Just because someone lives in a larger body, doesn’t mean they are less intelligent, efficient or capable of doing their job.

Obesity seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination and I would like to see this changed. I’m hoping the Government and society will see the findings of this report and know we need to stop this, there needs to be more support for people living with obesity and that things need to change.” 

Avideh Nazeri, Director of Clinical, Medical & Regulatory Affairs at Novo Nordisk UK said: “Obesity is a complex, chronic condition which is influenced by a range of factors, including genetics, physiology and environment, but it is still widely misunderstood.

“Consequently, many people with the condition face discrimination in and out of the workplace and are denied the support they need as damaging stereotypes prevail.

As well as its negative impact on individual outcomes, this report underlines the effect obesity stigma has on labour market engagement, national productivity and the wider economy.

Better understanding of the science of weight gain and loss is urgently needed to improve employment outcomes for people with obesity, and could play a key role in unlocking the full potential of the workforce as we recover from the economic impact of Covid-19.”

The full report can be found here.