The COVID-19 pandemic has focused employers' minds on employee health and wellbeing. Many employers are evaluating their employee wellbeing strategies, to assess how, once the pandemic is over, they can support the physical and mental health of their staff. But a recent report about obesity and the workplace is a useful reminder that focusing narrowly on perceived physical health can lead to stigma and discrimination.
The report by the Institute of Employment Studies found that, despite obesity being increasingly common in the UK (and globally), negative attitudes to obese people were widespread among employers. They were frequently stereotyped as lazy, unhealthy and unattractive. People living with obesity were many times more likely to report being discriminated against at work than employees in the 'normal' BMI category. They were also underrepresented in professional and managerial roles, and overrepresented in lower-paid roles.
There was also an obesity pay gap among female employees (although not male employees), suggesting that perceived attractiveness and sexist stereotypes play a significant role.
It seems likely that the pandemic will have exacerbated these negative attitudes, with some media coverage focusing on the extra risks the disease poses for overweight and obese patients.
The legal position
Severe and long-term obesity will, in some cases, be a disability in itself. Conditions associated with obesity, such as impaired mobility or diabetes, may also be disabilities. Employers should therefore bear in mind their duties to make reasonable adjustments and other duties under disability discrimination law. Even in cases where an obese or overweight employee does not meet the threshold for disability, harassment, bullying or unfavourable treatment which is linked to their weight could well give rise to claims for sex discrimination (if based on perceived unattractiveness) or constructive dismissal.
Employers should also bear in mind that experiencing prejudice and bullying in the workplace often leads to victims suffering depression and anxiety - both of which are common causes of long-term absence. So taking a zero-tolerance approach to such behaviour is likely to result in a healthier, more productive workforce, regardless of weight.
Combating stigma and discrimination
Workplace policies should emphasise that treating colleagues unfavourably, using derogatory language or indulging in stereotypes is unacceptable behaviour whether or not it would be discriminatory in law. But employers should also be conscious of the subtler ways in which fatphobic attitudes can manifest themselves.
It's not surprising that many employee wellbeing strategies encourage healthy eating and regular exercise. But employers should ensure that these initiatives focus on healthy lifestyles rather than weight loss. Although workplace weight loss challenges have become part of corporate life in the US (even featuring in the US version of The Office), they are not usual in the UK and likely to cause offence at best (and give rise to claims at worst). Wellness strategies which focus on physical and mental health for all, and which create a working environment conducive to good health, are far more likely to achieve employer's goals.