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

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The Independent Online

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."