Obesity Discrimination

As an employer, you might have obese people either as your employees or as prospects applying for a job with you.

You must avoid the obesity stigma, which is the cause of obesity discrimination, when interviewing candidates throughout the hiring process until you have them on board. Although obesity in and of itself is not a protected characteristic, in some circumstances it may be associated with disability.

If you treat an obese employee unfairly because they have a health issue related to their weight, you may face disability discrimination claims and hefty fines.

In this guide, we'll explain the definition of obesity or weight discrimination, its harmful effects and consequences, and offer advice on how to prevent it.

What is obesity discrimination?

Obesity or weight discrimination is when an employer treats an employee differently because of their weight.

People who are hired for a job may face this type of prejudice in a variety of ways. This can occur at any point during the employment process, including career counselling, interviews and hiring processes, salary disparities, and fewer promotions.

Employers may feel justified in discriminating against the overweight based on studies demonstrating that as body mass index (BMI) grows, so does absenteeism due to sick days.

This sort of discrimination usually happens as a result of weight bias (or stigma) which is a growing concern based on faulty beliefs such as:

  • Overweight individuals don’t work hard or are lazy.
  • People gain weight because they don't engage in physical activity.
  • Overweight and obese people can only blame themselves for this.

Although obesity is not a protected characteristic, weight discrimination can sometimes be more prevalent than discrimination due to race, sexual orientation, and other protected characteristics.

Person in jeans.

UK law around weight-based discrimination

Obesity is not one of the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. As a result, the act doesn't support the need for weight discrimination to be considered in employment tribunals.

This is not to say that negative treatment of obese individuals does not constitute discrimination. Being overweight can lead to serious ill-health conditions that may be life-threatening, such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Coronary heart disease.
  • Some types of cancer.
  • A stroke.
  • Psychological disorders such as anxiety disorders.

A person may be considered to have a disability under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 if they have a medical condition related to their overweight. This has to be determined by a healthcare practitioner.

Obese employees can report discrimination against an employer who treats them differently because of a disability-related to their weight status.

What is the stigma around body weight?

Individuals who are overweight or obese experience widespread social stigma. This is frequently based on the unproven assumption that their extra weight is due to a lack of self-discipline and personal responsibility.

People can't change their skin colour, but there is a common belief that people can diet their way out of obesity and that if someone has a larger body, it’s all their own.

Weight bias and any stigma associated with body size and health behaviours can lead to prejudice, violate social and human rights, and harm a person's health. It can cause physiological and behavioural changes that are connected to poor metabolic health.

Weight discrimination harms people's physical and mental health and is not accepted in modern societies. Strangely, weight stigma actually causes a gradual increase in size and a decrease in health-seeking activities.

Difference between weight stigma and weight discrimination

Weight stigmatisation or bias often refers to negative weight-related attitudes towards someone with excess weight. This can happen at work, school, among family members, in healthcare settings, and in interpersonal relationships.

Negative stereotypes, negative comments, social rejection, and prejudice are common examples of how weight stigma is expressed. Weight-related bullying, physical violence, and relational victimisation are all examples of acts caused by weight stigma.

There is a slight difference between weight stigma and discrimination. Weight discrimination refers to the unfair treatment of overweight people because of their weight, and is different from the negative attitudes mentioned above.

It's when someone faces employment discrimination because of their weight status. For example, a person with obesity who is qualified for a job but is not recruited because of his or her weight may have been the victim of weight discrimination. Whether they can make a claim here depends on the specifics of their case.

If an employer wants to implement weight restrictions in some circumstances, they should have justifiable reasons for it.

Someone measuring their belly.

What are the effects of weight discrimination?

It’s critical to know that unfair treatment of obese people based on their weight has severe health outcomes. The unfavourable consequences for their physical and mental health go beyond losing job opportunities and promotions in the workplace.

Obese persons with lower socioeconomic status typically gain weight faster than obese people with a better socioeconomic background. Also, the more educated, the more likely they are to exercise and seek preventative treatment.

Two of the most common consequences of weight discrimination for obese people are as follows:

Long-term stress

It's impossible to escape stress, and a little bit of it now and then may even be beneficial. But stress that goes on for too long has bad health outcomes for your body as well as your mind.

Obesity and stress have long been considered to be linked. Weight discrimination exposes employees to a lifetime risk of high "allostatic load". This is the medical term for the accumulation of negative effects caused by chronic stress.

People who have high allostatic loads are at greater risk of having a variety of health problems, including:

  • Heart disease.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Mood disorders.
  • Dental and gum diseases.

Long-term stress makes your employees more prone to mistakes, poor work performance, burnout, and workplace conflicts. You should reduce stress by creating a work environment in which people feel comfortable about their obese bodies and are not judged or treated unfairly.

Internalising the bias

Over time, negative beliefs regarding body mass might creep into a person's self-concept. Holding unfavourable thoughts about oneself because of obesity or size is known as internalised weight bias.

Many people who are overweight or obese have internalised weight bias and consequently devalue themselves. Internalised bias has been linked to a variety of negative mental health outcomes, including:

  • Depression.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • A negative body image.

People who are overweight are likely to adopt body mass views, leading to self-directed shaming and stereotypes about themselves. This can lead to negative outcomes such as poor self-reported health, binge-eating, and harmful health behaviours.

Three people walking.

How to prevent weight discrimination in the recruitment process

As an employer, you have a legal and moral obligation to care for your employees. You are responsible for providing a safe and secure work environment.

Health disparities are an increasing prevalence in public health, yet they are rarely described specifically, which you should be aware of and plan for when hiring.

Throughout the hiring process, you must avoid potential prejudice and ensure that stigma doesn't dissuade obese prospects from applying.

If an employer treats a worker with a weight-related health issue unfairly, it may result in disability discrimination claims and costly fines.

However, a tribunal must evaluate if the individual with obesity is disabled and whether the weight stigma was discriminatory.

You should make appropriate changes, such as expanding the workspace and buying new office furnishings. This promotes better health, and prevents obese persons from feeling insecure whilst performing their tasks.

Additionally, allow flexible work schedules and later start and finish times to support their mental health. Pay special attention to obese women as they're more likely than obese men to face prejudice.

It's good practice to provide comments on rejected candidates' interviews. It's not only beneficial to them, but it may also help you create your employer brand by treating all applicants fairly. When it comes to attracting future talent, this is a crucial factor to consider.

Get advice on weight discrimination from Peninsula

Your employees and prospects shouldn't experience weight discrimination or weight-based victimisation throughout the hiring process or while working for you.

Poor treatment of people with severe obesity may result in weight discrimination. This happens if a health practitioner demonstrates that the employee has a disability related to their weight status, in which case you could face hefty fines.

Peninsula offers 24/7 HR advice which is available 365 days a year. We take care of everything when you work with our HR experts.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 051 3687 and book a free consultation with one of our HR consultants.

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