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Common workplace health promotion tactics may increase weight stigma and discrimination

20 November 2018

Workplace health promotion programs frequently encourage employees to take responsibility for their own weight. While this may seem like a good idea, a new study in Frontiers in Psychology by Laetitia Mulder and Susanne Täuber reveals that such tactics may actually have detrimental effects for employees with obesity. These range from feeling increasingly responsible for their weight but perceiving that they have less control over it, to increased workplace weight stigma and discrimination. Ironically, these effects could even lead to increased obesity and decreased wellbeing. The study finds that health programs focusing on an employer’s responsibility to maintain their employees’ health could avoid these pitfalls.

Laetitia Mulder
Laetitia Mulder

“Who is responsible for obesity?” asks Professor Laetitia Mulder of the University of Groningen. “We are often told that it’s someone’s own responsibility, but people tend to forget that the institutions that shape our immediate environment strongly influence our behavior.” The workplace can have a huge impact on health, including weight. For instance, a canteen where healthy food is scarce or expensive compared with unhealthy food is likely to lead to unhealthy choices. From this perspective, employers bear some responsibility for employee health and weight. In response to the high prevalence of obesity, employers are increasingly implementing workplace health promotion programs. However, many such programs highlight employee responsibility for obesity and ignore employer responsibilities. For instance, a sign in a canteen stating, “Watch your weight and choose healthy options!” is employee-focused, whereas an employer-focused policy would involve offering only healthy food options to support healthy eating.

Negligible or modest effects

Previous studies examining the effectiveness of workplace health promotion programs (many of which are employee-focused) have reported that they have negligible or modest effects on employee weight. Mulder and colleagues believed that employee-focused programs may contribute to weight stigma and discrimination in the workplace and make employees with obesity feel that their weight is blameworthy. This could produce a range of adverse effects in affected people and ironically could lead to binge eating and increased obesity.

To investigate the phenomenon, the research team conducted a series of surveys and psychological tests on employees and a group of undergraduate student volunteers. They found that when people are confronted with concepts from an employee-focused health program, this increases weight stigma and weight-based discrimination compared with concepts from an employer-focused program. So, what does this mean?

Lazy, unattractive, slow

“In general, people judged a woman with obesity in a photo to be lazy, unattractive, slow and as having less will-power compared with a woman without obesity,” says Mulder. “However, this effect became stronger when people had been confronted with concepts from an employee-focused program.”

Strikingly, this effect even extended to outright weight discrimination, where people exposed to employee-focused health promotion concepts were more likely to prefer hiring a woman without obesity over a woman with obesity. This increased discrimination did not occur in people exposed to employer-focused health promotion concepts. People with obesity found themselves in a catch-22 situation after exposure to employee-focused health promotion concepts, by feeling more responsible for their weight but less able to control it. This did not occur with employer-focused health promotion.

What the organization can do

The researchers did not test the effects of a mix of employer- and employee-focused health promotion concepts, so further research may reveal whether a combination of approaches might work without the negative side-effects. “When developing a health program, organizations should not solely focus on employee responsibility, but should look at what the organization can do to bring about healthy behavior,” explains Mulder.

Whilst obesity is a major health challenge, acknowledging where responsibility lies, while avoiding blame and stigmatization, is likely to provide an effective roadmap to better health.

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Last modified:20 November 2018 2.54 p.m.

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