Obesity in the workplace: To get this fat takes ages

The media feeding frenzy that has ensued since the big issue of Fat UK plc was first brought to the attention of the masses by Personnel Today (25 October 2005) has seemingly continued non-stop with a nibble here and a massive gnaw on a kebab there.

And our follow-up survey and last week’s letters page (Personnel Today, 3 April) simply added to the smorgasbord of fat-related cut and thrust that has been gorged upon by the morbidly obese beast that is the national press. But while the opportunity to dine out on such a feast of cheap puns and fattist gags is too much to resist – most journalists just cannot say ‘no’ to the last ‘waffertheen mint’ à la Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – this weighty topic seems to be growing faster than the population itself.

Just for starters

Most recently, we hear that a lardy lobby group is putting pressure on the government to ban ‘fattism’ – that is, the alleged prejudice against people just because they are fat. But wait, someone else objects and shouts ‘foul’. This should not be called ‘fattism’ it should be called ‘sizeism’ they cry (Personnel Today, Letters, 3 April).

Everyone originally started to pile in when Personnel Today revealed that 93% in HR would not employ the fat person – all other things being equal in a two-person race for a job. But is there anything wrong with that? Surely it’s justified on the grounds that fat people sweat too much, eat too much, wear out chairs and carpet more quickly than thinner people, eat more food from the staff canteen, drink more beer and wine and do less exercise, take more time off sick and cost the health service millions, if not billions, each year?

Going à la carte

Sadly, there are no statistics to back this wild generalisation up, as employers tend not to ask for a body mass index score on recruitment questionnaires. So what evidence is there? From Jamie’s School Dinners to the Department of Health (DoH), there has been a concerted push for healthy eating. Yet while the DoH trumpets the benefits of reducing consumption of ‘bad’ foods, the national statistics do not back this up. In fact, there has been an overall reduction in the consumption of such foods since the 1980s.

We are living in a more sedentary society. Manual jobs have been replaced by sit-at-a-computer-and-be-rude-to-the-public jobs, and our love of the car has reduced the amount of exercise we all get. The answer? More exercise and dietary restraint.

Mental agility is revered in the world of work, so why not physical agility – or at the very least the ability to get up from a chair without getting out of breath?

But are we really turning into a nation of heavyweights? We have a population of 60 million or so. Estimates suggest that while a fifth of the population (12 million) is currently obese, this will rise to a staggering (from table to table eating leftovers) third of the population (around 22 million) by 2010.

But hang on there. We also have also an ageing population and, we are told, 70% of that ageing population is obese. That’s 8.4 million old fatties. Which only leaves just 3.6 million to account for. And as some of those will be children, we’re talking about the obese making up a maximum of 10% of the working age population. The problem has clearly been blown up out of all proportion.

And it should come as no surprise that most people in HR would choose a person of a ‘normal’ size over a tubby. Obesity causes 9,000 premature deaths per year. If one million fewer people were obese there would be 15,000 fewer cases of heart disease, a 34,000 reduction in cases of type 2 diabetes, and 99,000 fewer people would have high blood pressure, according to DoH figures. This costs the UK some £3.3bn, out of a total annual sickness absence bill of £12bn.

Don’t be a pudding

Size zero or size 22, it shouldn’t matter. If you’re too fat or too thin, you are not going to get a job against an equally qualified normal-sized person.

But this bias doesn’t just affect fatties and skinnies. It applies to overly tall and overly short people too. Given the option of a normal-sized individual and a ridiculously tall person, I’d put money on 93% of HR practitioners rejecting the vertically excessive every time.

The question to ask is can these physically challenged people do the job as well as a ‘normal’ candidate – who is not going to attract unwanted attention as a result of their gargantuan inside leg measurement or their planet-sized waistband?

Of course, it is no coincidence that once people get to the top, they tend to spread out quite a bit. But it’s clear that while company directors want their company to grow fat on your endeavours, they don’t want you to grow fat eating into their profits.

Fromage… to eternity

So does being fat affect an individual’s ability to do their job? Yes. Should that stop you employing them? Probably not. After all, beggars can’t be choosers – and pretty soon it’s going to be a candidate’s market when it comes to jobs, and all organisations will have to be prepared to pay out all their hard-earned cash to old ‘grey-haired’ overweight people with bags full of pills and a history of heart irregularities.

(Eddie Murphy as an excessively rotund female in his latest film Norbit)

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