Battling the bulge bias: Summit

Policies needed to combat ‘socially sanctioned’ prejudice
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/11/2011

It’s time for employers to implement policies to deal with weight discrimination, according to the keynote speaker at the recent National Summit on Weight Bias and Discrimination in Toronto.

“Weight discrimination is one of the most common forms of workforce discrimination that is reported,” said Rebecca Puhl, a director of research and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

“In the past decade, reports of institutional weight discrimination... have increased by about 66 per cent (in the United States). What we know from several decades of research is overweight and obese employees face unfair treatment and inequities at virtually every stage of the employment process.”

That can mean lower wages and unequal hiring practices, where employers would rather hire a thin individual than an overweight one, even if he has identical qualifications, she said.

“They also are less likely to get promotions, more likely to get fired and they also confront a lot of negative, weight-based stereotypes in the workplace from co-workers and supervisors,” said Puhl. “It’s a pretty challenging environment to work in when you’re overweight and obese, so that’s a key area we need to be focusing on.”

There are no federal laws to protect against weight discrimination in Canada. But the same was true of age discrimination a few years ago, said Puhl, citing a survey she conducted of 1,001 adults in the U.S. that found 65 per cent of men and 81 per cent of women supported laws to prohibit weight discrimination in the workplace.

“Those policy kinds of questions are really starting to surface. We may be getting closer to a time where this is seriously considered,” she said.

This issue affects most of the workforce, said Puhl.

“The majority of Canadians are overweight or obese, this problem is not going away and you can’t treat that percentage of the population like second-class citizens.”

Weight bias can be subtle or very overt, appearing as derogatory comments or fat jokes, social isolation or physical aggression.

“Many companies are implementing anti-bullying policies in the workplace but we need to make sure that obesity and body weight are on the radar as part of these policies,” said Puhl.

“People are so used to it and the fat humour and jokes, it often gets ignored and is not considered a priority but it absolutely needs to be a central part of these policies.”

The summit, held on Jan. 17, was organized by the Canadian Obesity Network and PREVnet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network) to address weight bias and discrimination systemic in Canadian society. Thought leaders from different disciplines were in attendance along with an expert panel. A council was also selected to come up with action-oriented recommendations to address weight bias.

The issue of weight bias and discrimination is widespread and highly prevalent, said Arya Sharma, scientific director at the Canadian Obesity Network.

“(Employers) should be concerned largely because when people show up for work and they’re harassed or teased or bullied about their weight, that is going to affect performance, it can lead to depression, absenteeism, it can lead to the phenomenon of presenteeism... and that has huge cost implications for employers.”

There should be zero tolerance for harassment, bullying and inappropriate jokes of any kind, as there is with people’s race, colour or ethnicity, said Sharma.

“Any kind of behaviour like that has nothing to do in the workplace — it should not be condoned, should not be tolerated, should not be encouraged. There needs to be the same sensitivity around it as there is around sexual harassment or any of the other things we think we have a handle on.”

“Weight discrimination is very socially acceptable in our society — it’s rarely challenged and often ignored — and, as a result, people are really facing tremendous stigma and unfair treatment and that really has a negative impact on their emotional and physical health and can really reduce their quality of life,” said Puhl.

Employers should also be concerned about the mental health of employees affected by the stigma and discrimination, said Puhl.

“It increases the risk of a lot of different psychological problems, like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies. It also leads to a lot of unhealthy behaviours that reinforce weight gain, so people stigmatized because of weight are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviours, avoid physical activity, do worse in weight-loss programs.”

Employers can help fight the prejudice by increasing awareness among supervisors and staff, and educating them about weight bias and the causes of obesity, said Puhl.

A lot of the stigma comes from inaccurate beliefs about the causes of obesity, such as laziness or lack of willpower, when it’s a much more complex condition.

“People think it’s OK to make fun of fat people because of the stereotype of the person, who are often portrayed in the media as lazy, stuffing themselves with food sitting on the couch or having a dishevelled look,” said Sharma.

“All this reinforces the notion fat people are fat because they don’t take care of themselves, they’re gluttons, they don’t move, but the complexity of the problem is such that none of that is true. For every fat person who eats fast food, I’ll show you two thin people who eat fast food.”

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