Working with Obesity – When stigma gets in the way in the workplace

By Dr. Ximena Ramos-Salas |  Published 11 October 2018


Today marks the third annual World Obesity Day. By 2025, it is estimated that 2.7 billion people will be overweight or living with obesity.1 While this number tells a story of a global health problem, it fails to highlight another growing, widespread problem: the stigma surrounding obesity. In 2015, the Canadian Medical Association declared obesity a chronic medical disease, based on its ability to decrease life expectancy and impair normal functions of the body.2 Yet, despite this classification, obesity is often viewed as a weight management or lifestyle problem. The idea that obesity is “just about weight” is prevalent in our schools, media, social centers and workplaces. At Novo Nordisk Canada, we are committed to changing the conversation on obesity. Eliminating stigma requires addressing pre-conceived notions, generating discussions and implementing resources that are welcoming and inclusive to all employees. 

Often obesity can also have negative effects on the productivity of an organization. Employees living with obesity tend to have higher rates of absenteeism, missing approximately 77% more days of work, and are at increased risk for short- and long-term disability.3

Although some of this absenteeism can be due to the physical and mental comorbidities associated with obesity, absenteeism can also be due to weight bias in the workplace. Experiencing weight bias in the workplace can lead to employees feeling isolated and marginalized, which can create psychosocial morbidities. One example of weight bias is when employers have lower expectations of those living with obesity due to social stereotypes that individuals with obesity are lazy, unintelligent, and lacking willpower. Or, when company health and wellness programs unknowingly promote weight bias, causing employees to feel anxiety, fear, or judgement.4 Consider, for example, what happens when wellness programs focus solely on weight loss and not on health and wellbeing. Oftentimes, individuals with obesity feel targeted by these weight loss programs, triggering feelings of shame and guilt, which can impact a person’s psychosocial wellbeing. Rather than targeting weight loss, wellness programs should focus on creating a healthy environment for everyone. Employers should be aware of the deeply ingrained social stereotypes associated with obesity so that they can prevent weight bias experiences in the workplace.

According to Dr. Ximena Ramos-Salas, Managing Director of Obesity Canada, weight bias is pervasive in our society and often goes unchallenged. As a result, stigma is deeply ingrained in our society, including in our workplaces. This stigma can become a major disruptor in the workplace, affecting organizational output, culture and morale.

Shifting the needle on stigma requires re-evaluating the resources and supports provided by employers. Organizations can be change agents by creating supportive work environments. This means investing in resources and initiatives that support work life balance, healthy eating, regular exercise, stress management and coverage of anti-obesity therapies. Increasing employee education on obesity also fosters organizational change. Communications to employees should include explanations on why obesity, like other chronic diseases, requires individualized treatment plans. Health and wellness programs should include information and resources from obesity specialists and certified health professionals.4 Individuals with obesity should be involved in the development of company programs to ensure their needs are addressed in a judgement-free manner. Eliminating stigma starts with a commitment to dissolve stereotypes and promote education in homes, schools and workplaces, and this commitment has the potential to change the future of Canadians’ health on a nationwide scale.

For more information, visit obesitycanada.ca
 


References:

  1. World Obesity Federation. World Obesity Day Data Released. Retrieved from www.worldobesity.org/news/world-obesity-day-data-released/.
  2. Rich, Pat. (2015, Oct 9). CMA recognizes obesity as a disease. Retrieved from www.cma.ca/En/Pages/cma-recognizes-obesity-as-a-disease.aspx.
  3. Beech, Sarah. (2017, April 11) Obesity’s toll on the workplace – and how to fix it. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/leadership-lab/obesitys-toll-on-the-workplace-and-how-to-fix-it/article33099896/
  4. Novo Nordisk Canada Inc. (2015, November) Obesity is a Chronic Disease, Toronto, CA.
     

About Obesity

One in four adult Canadians and one in 10 children live with clinical obesity, meaning six million Canadians living with obesity may require immediate support in managing and controlling their weight.

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