Most companies know that obesity impacts their bottom line by increasing medical costs and decreasing employee productivity. Yet, the problem runs much deeper—negative attitudes toward employees who struggle with weight are pervasive and cost many employers more than they think.
In this Q&A blog, Joe Nadglowski, the CEO of America’s largest advocacy organization dedicated to identifying and eradicating weight bias, and Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a leading researcher in the field of weight bias, explain why weight bias is bad for business and highlight actions employers can take to mitigate this problem in their organizations.
What is weight bias?
Joe Nadglowski: Weight bias refers to negative attitudes toward and/or beliefs about persons with overweight and obesity. Persistent weight bias can lead to weight stigma, the internalization of weight bias and weight-based discrimination, which refer to unfair treatment of individuals with excess weight. In American society, weight discrimination is now comparable in prevalence to racial discrimination, especially among women. Contrary to popular belief, frequent exposure to weight bias and stigma is not motivating to people with overweight or obesity —it’s demoralizing.
What are common examples of weight bias and weight-based discrimination in the workplace?
Dr. Puhl: Studies show that employees with obesity are often unfairly viewed as less competent, lazy, and lacking in self-discipline by their co-workers and employer. These negative perceptions translate to weight discrimination in the form of inequitable hiring practices; studies show that well-qualified applicants with obesity are less likely to be hired than applicants with a lower weight. Also, employees with obesity are more likely to experience wage and benefit discrimination and to be passed over for promotions. They’re also more likely to be subject to disciplinary action and wrongful terminations than employees with lower body weight. In sum, there is considerable scientific evidence that weight bias occurs at every stage of the employment cycle – from getting hired to being fired.
What’s the connection between weight bias and health?
Joe Nadglowski: Weight-related bias, stigma, and discrimination have serious consequences for the health and well-being of employees with overweight and obesity. Weight bias often exacerbates unhealthy behaviors—such as forgoing medical care, overeating, or avoiding physical activity—that perpetuate weight gain.
Dr. Puhl: Experiencing discrimination can trigger physiological stress responses (e.g. increased inflammation and cortisol levels) that can contribute to poor health and increases in body weight. Above and beyond contributing to weight gain, higher levels of weight bias internalization are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
Beyond employee health, what’s the business case for addressing weight bias?
Joe Nadglowski: By exacerbating weight gain, weight bias can increase the costs associated with overweight and obesity. Weight bias also deters employees with obesity from accessing weight management programs and services. As a result, investments in obesity prevention and treatment benefits may not pay off if employers fail to address weight bias.
How can employers tell that weight bias is a problem in their workplace?
Joe Nadglowski: Ask employees. It is important to understand the perspectives of individuals who experience weight bias – as well as those who witness it or even perpetuate it - when formulating a strategy to combat it.
What steps can employers take to address weight bias?
Dr. Puhl: When we asked individuals with obesity for their perspectives on the best way to reduce weight-based stigma, they 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.
Joe Nadglowski: It’s also important for employers to recognize that most employees who struggle with weight are working against their own biology. One of the best ways for a company to show employees with obesity that they are valued is to support their efforts to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. For starters, this means providing comprehensive coverage for science-based behavioral, pharmacological, and surgical treatments for obesity.
For more information on how weight bias affects workplace culture and employee health—and additional strategies to address it—check out the Obesity Action Coalition’s Weight Bias in the Workplace guide for employers.
Joe Nadglowski is President & CEO of the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) – a 59,000-member non-profit organization dedicated to elevating and empowering those affected by obesity through education, advocacy and support. Mr. Nadglowski has more than 25 years of experience working in patient advocacy, public policy and education and is a graduate of the University of Florida. He has been a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House to discuss childhood obesity and has testified before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the importance of increasing treatment options for individuals affected by obesity.
Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., is Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut, where she is responsible for identifying and coordinating research and policy efforts aimed at reducing weight bias. Dr. Puhl received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Yale University and has conducted research on weight bias for 15 years. Dr. Puhl has testified in state legislative hearings on weight bias, routinely provides expertise to state and national health organizations, and has developed evidence-based training programs to reduce weight bias that have been implemented in medical facilities across the country.