Obesity in the eye of the employer: How to beat the prejudice

Chrissie Webber was 18 when she decided she wanted to be a nurse. But she was a size 22, and before she could get a hospital placement, she was told she had to lose weight. "The silly thing is that I cycled everywhere, I played badminton and tennis," she says. "I was generally healthy and fit."

Even so, they sent her to a hospital dietitian to lose a couple of stone. She says they never asked her about her exercise routine or levels of activity. She admits she overate, but says she wasn't inactive. "People just presume that if you're fat, you're lazy."

That perception continues even now. Health and wellbeing consultancy Vielife's recent survey indicates that employees who are classified as obese report significantly less productivity than those who are not – and overweight people take nearly twice as much sick leave. Given that nearly half of UK employees have excess body weight, with 14 per cent considered clinically obese, this is a scary statistic.

There is no law in the UK against discriminating on the grounds of obesity, which means that an employer can refuse to give you a job because of your size, according to Jenny Ungless from City Life Coaching. In a recent survey, 30 per cent of HR bosses said that they believed obesity was a valid medical reason for not employing someone.

People inevitably judge on appearances. Emma Evans, 51, a secretary from south London, says that the fear of what others thought of her appearance in a business context drove her to diet. "For me, it's a confidence thing, and I feel that as soon as someone sees a fat person in front of them they ignore anything else about me and assume I'm stupid." She says she feels she has to prove herself more than she would if she were thin, or even just thinner. "When I was an office manager, and slimmer than I am now, I twice overheard snide comments about me being a fat cow. On one occasion I waltzed back into the office and sacked the woman on the spot." The employee had had other warnings for her behaviour and Evans knew that if she didn't stand up to her, she would lose all respect in the office. "I still went into the ladies' loo and cried afterwards," she says.

Evans's and Webber's experiences are not uncommon, suggests occupational psychologist Jenny West of Career Analysts. She says that both are examples of the prejudice in the workplace – and in society in general – about overweightness, namely that obesity equals laziness and lack of fitness. "The common assumption is that people who are very overweight do not care about their health and appearance and are not trying to change. The media and Government focus on obesity has only made the prejudice worse."

Chrissie Webber, now a weight-loss motivational coach for Lifeshapers, warns against assuming that all overweight people are inactive and unproductive. She says that though some overweight people don't have stamina, that's also the case for some thin people. "I firmly believe that how you are perceived – at work and in life – depends on your individual belief system. Some people take criticism or discrimination to heart, and become a victim. That means they withdraw into themselves and become less productive. Day in, day out, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – they end up displaying the characteristics they're assumed to have."

While attitudes are slow to change, the most obvious answer in addressing these kinds of problems may be simply to lose weight. That's easier said than done, though, and as Jenny Ungless says, the bottom line is that, for most people, their size is their choice: if you really wanted to be slimmer, you would lose weight. But if you feel that your size means you are being treated differently in the office or even in interviews, a plan of action is needed as an interim measure. Jenny West recommends positive action from those who feel they are being discriminated against because of their weight. "Be more assertive, and state your own needs and feelings when dealing with work colleagues," she says.

Webber advises overweight people in the workplace to maintain a positive attitude – and stay active. "It's important not to allow other people's discrimination to trigger guilt or shame. A tendency to overeat doesn't make you a bad person, and it doesn't make you lazy or under-productive. Increase your activity rate – and have fun."

www.citylifecoaching.com

www.careeranalysts.co.uk

www.lifeshapers.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + + uncapped commission + benefits: SThree: Did you ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits + uncapped commission: SThree: Did you kn...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate / Junior Web Developer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions