February 26, 2024
What Is the Role of Workplace Culture and Design in Employers’ Strategy to Treat Obesity?
A workplace that is free from weight bias and promotes nutritious food choices and movement can increase the likelihood that employees with obesity are successful with behavioral, pharmacological and/or surgical treatments. By focusing on these factors as the underpinning to a comprehensive weight management strategy, employers can also protect their investment in programs and benefits to treat obesity.
How Does Weight Bias Impact Weight Loss Efforts?
Weight bias in the workplace - negative attitudes toward employees with overweight and obesity – has the potential to undermine the success of weight management strategies. Persistent weight bias can lead to weight stigma and weight-based discrimination, a pervasive trend in the U.S. with serious consequences for the health and well-being of employees.1
Weight bias can exacerbate behaviors that impede weight loss or contribute to weight gain; studies show that people who experience weight stigma turn to food as a coping mechanism and avoid physical activity.2 Evidence also shows that higher levels of weight bias internalization are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disease.3 People with obesity have also reported delaying preventive care due to disrespect from or negative attitudes of providers related to their weight.4
How Can the Workplace Influence Food Choices and Movement?
The workplace can influence whether employees eat nutritiously or move throughout the day by shaping employee behavior through workplace design, the food and activity options available and cultural norms. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, a study found that almost a quarter of employees (23%) obtained food and beverages from work each week, and most of it was unhealthy (e.g., soft drinks, cookies or brownies, fries and tortilla and potato chips), illustrating the tremendous opportunity employers have to promote more nutritious choices.5
Evidence supports several approaches to prompt more nutritious food selections at work. These include serving appropriate portions, reducing the cost of healthy foods in comparison to less healthy options and providing visual cues, such as traffic light labeling or healthier options placed at eye level. Because the workplace now includes many employees’ homes, employers are also exploring how to promote healthy food choices beyond the four walls of the company worksite. Grocery discount cards, grocery delivery, meal delivery kits and meal planning services are some of the ways employers are promoting nutritious eating, and in some cases, addressing inadequate access to healthy food options in the community.
To promote movement throughout the day, research indicates that the use of stairwell signs and prompts, access to places for exercise like walking trails and fitness centers and flexible work time for exercise can all be effective. With many employees now working from home in a hybrid or full-time format, employers are reimagining physical activity strategies to incorporate virtual or off-site fitness opportunities to complement on-site offerings and initiatives and promote consistency across settings.
What Should Employers Consider When Assessing Their Culture and Workplace Strategy?
- Is weight bias present in your organization? Ask employees about their experiences with weight bias or stigma in focus groups or through surveys. You can also encourage employees to explore their own attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes through a self-assessment.
- Is weight bias training incorporated into workplace trainings? If not, evaluate practical ways it can be integrated into the employee life cycle (e.g., onboarding, leadership development, etc.). When asked for their perspective on the best way to reduce weight-based stigma, individuals with obesity rated inclusion of education about weight bias in existing anti-harassment workplace trainings as one of the top three most impactful and feasible strategies worth pursuing.
- Are communications about health and well-being free from stigmatizing language and imagery? Examine current and future communication materials for stigmatizing content (e.g., headless images of people with obesity, language or images that suggest a person’s body weight is a reflection of their character or intelligence, use of pejorative language or inappropriate humor). It can be helpful to test messages with the target audience, including getting their feedback on any weight-related terminology and images. Images positively portraying people with obesity can be found in the UConn Rudd Center Media Gallery, the World Obesity Federation Image Bank or on the Obesity Action Coalition’s website.
- Are nutritious food choices ample and affordable? Assess your café, vending and catering offerings to determine whether you’re providing healthful options to employees. Use this information to make the case for the implementation of policies that reduce exposure to unhealthy foods (e.g., creating healthy checkouts in cafes to avoid impulse food purchases), and support healthier food choices (e.g., serve appropriate portions, subsidize healthy items). Additionally, determine how your organization supports access to affordable and nutritious food outside the workplace and if there are opportunities to improve accessibility through new partnerships or initiatives (e.g., discounts for meal delivery services, healthy take-home meals from an on-site café).
- Is there an opportunity for employees to engage in movement throughout the day? Normalize movement by looking for ways to reduce extended sitting throughout the day. Encourage managers to conduct walking meetings, empower employees to take stretch breaks and/or time during the day for physical activity (these can be implemented on-site or virtually) and work with the facilities team to offer standing and treadmill desks, as well as access to well-lit stairwells.
With obesity rates rising across the U.S. and the globe, the time is now for employers to develop a comprehensive weight management strategy that approaches obesity as a complex, chronic disease. Employers can do this by offering a spectrum of evidence-based interventions to treat obesity, providing support for patients in choosing and adhering to the interventions that are most appropriate for them and establishing a workplace culture and environment that supports healthy habits. In doing so, employers will enable employees with obesity to access care that can make a difference in their health and quality of life.
- 1 | Puhl R. Weight stigma study in the U.S. and 5 other nations shows the worldwide problem of such prejudice. The Washington Post. June 12, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/overweight-discrimination-common-harmful/2021/06/11/2946c538-c88c-11eb-afd0-9726f7ec0ba6_story.html. Accessed October 24, 2022.
- 2 | Lee KM, Hunger JM, Tomiyama AJ. Weight stigma and health behaviors: evidence from the Eating in America Study. Int J Obes (Lond). 2021;45(7):1499-1509.
- 3 | Pearl RL, Wadden TA, Hopkins CM, et al. Association between weight bias internalization and metabolic syndrome among treatment-seeking individuals with obesity. Obesity. 2017;25(2):317-322.
- 4 | Amy NK, Aalborg A, Lyons P, Keranen L. Barriers to routine gynecological cancer screening for white and African-American obese women. Int J Obes. 2006;30(1):147-55.
- 5 | Onufrak S, Zaganjor H, Pan L, et al. Foods and beverages obtained at worksites in the United States. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2019;119(6):999-1008.