Inclusion in the workplace: obesity

Des employés autour d'une table de réunion

Is obesity a global health issue? In Canada, people whose height and weight qualifies them as obese make up over a quarter (26.8%) of the population. And yet, weight bias (pro-thin) continues to exist, even in the workplace.

Understanding the challenges of overweight employees and adopting inclusive practises won’t only improve health in general, but also boost productivity and job satisfaction.

What if the solution to obesity is more than just calorie counting and exercise? Welcome to the world of body diversity!

What is obesity exactly?

The answer is more complicated than simply stepping on a scale.

According to the World Health Organization (This hyperlink will open in a new tab), obesity is defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that poses a health risk. A body mass index (This hyperlink will open in a new tab) (BMI) over 30 is considered obese.

So, what causes obesity? There are many factors at play, like:

  • Diet (and cooking skills)
  • Physical activity
  • General health conditions
  • Medication
  • Sleep patterns
  • Mental health and stress levels

And then, there are those factors over which people have little to no control, like:

  • Genetics
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Income
  • Employment
  • Availability of affordable, healthy food

The domino effect of obesity

Obesity is rarely the only problem. It’s usually linked to other conditions, namely:

  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea
  • Musculoskeletal problems (arthritis, arthrosis)
  • And more

Discrimination? What discrimination?

Obesity is a leading public health issue, but it's also a touchy one! The lack of sensitivity and nuance around this condition means that obese people are often discriminated against. Yes, fatphobia even exists in the workplace.

A Statistics Canada (This hyperlink will open in a new tab) study investigated trends in obesity among the employed and compared their responses to those of thin employees.

The results suggest that a higher percentage of obese men and women feel that they receive low social support from colleagues and supervisors, and reported having high job strain.

There is also a link between obesity and performance at work because:

  • Excess weight increases the risk of injury and absenteeism.
  • Obese workers are more likely to not use personal protective equipment (gloves, eyewear, etc.) due to poor comfort, fit or availability.

Clearly, when it comes to workplace safety, obese employees are at a disadvantage, despite laws designed to protect them. Their promotions and salaries are also lower than those of their slim colleagues. In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (This hyperlink will open in a new tab) (French only), their salaries can be 18% lower.

Discrimination doesn't end there, unfortunately. It’s also in the healthcare system (This hyperlink will open in a new tab). Here are some of the harsh situations that obese people face at the hands of healthcare professionals:

  • Medical consultations tend be much shorter than with patients who are slim.
  • Less preventive advice is offered.
  • The impression of not being taken seriously.
  • Their weight is often singled out as the cause of all their medical problems, which makes patients reluctant to talk about them.

Where do we go from here?

Obesity is a chronic disease... and a complex one at that.

As a society, we have to take a fresh, unfiltered look at obesity. Acknowledging the stigma is the first step towards an inclusive workplace.

Obesity prevention in your organization needs to go beyond quick fixes. The proof? A BMI over 30 doesn’t necessarily mean that a person isn’t ticking all the right boxes in terms of lifestyle habits. It may not be the result of laziness, a lack of willpower or overeating.

We have to stop downplaying obesity as a problem that can be solved through simple motivation.

So, instead of focusing your prevention efforts on weight loss, focus on improving lifestyle habits. This is a non-stigmatizing approach that can be applied to ALL your employees because everyone benefits from reducing their risk of developing diabetes or high blood pressure.

Implementing a healthy corporate culture shows your employees that you care about their well-being—no matter their body shape!

What YOU can do

To implement weight-inclusive practises in your company, follow these steps:

  • Provide ergonomic workspaces and equipment suited to all body sizes
  • Set up an awareness program to debunk myths about obesity, weight loss and health in general
  • Use inclusive, non-shaming language about weight (This hyperlink will open in a new tab)
  • Implement DEI programs that take body image positivity into account
  • Encourage active transportation
  • Set up corporate allowances or discounts for physical activities
  • Provide a healthy, varied on-site food service offering

Make the most of your group insurance plan

Your group insurance plan has options for you.

Let's start with weight loss treatments, which are complementary to other options. In the past, the reimbursement of claims for such treatments was not included in group plans, despite the effectiveness of these drugs.

Although subject to certain conditions, reimbursement is now more widespread. This is the case at Beneva for all our new customers.

Have you ever considered expanding the range of covered professional healthcare services? Nutritionists, kinesiologists, physiotherapists and psychotherapists can assist your staff in their efforts to adopt healthy lifestyle habits.

Does your group insurance plan include an Employee Assistance Program? Such a program provides access to certain healthcare professionals. Be sure to promote it to your employees.

Also contact your insurer's Organizational Health Team for help setting up an inclusive corporate culture.

On the road to inclusion!

The workplace is a melting pot. Now more than ever, it's time to be kind and inclusive with everyone. Bring body diversity to your workplace!