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?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Structural Engineer

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Structural Engineer ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Sales Executive

£18 - 24k OTE + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Executive ...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant - IT Channel - Graduate

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a Value-Added I...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor