Obesity research: Fattism is the last bastion of employee discrimination

Personnel Today’s exclusive survey of more than 2,000 HR professionals on obesity reveals some eye-opening statistics about the level of discrimination facing overweight employees in UK workplaces. Daniel Thomas reports.

The issue of obesity has been in the headlines more than ever this year, whether it be Turkey Twizzlers in school meals, the amount of salt in breakfast cereals, or the growing waistline of the average Brit.

While it has always been considered a matter for the individual, statistics showing that obese people cost the economy £2bn a year highlight the role employers have to play in improving staff health to boost productivity.

Impact on output

An exclusive Personnel Today survey of more than 2,000 UK-based HR professionals reveals that almost half believe that obesity negatively affects employee output, with more than a quarter believing that obesity is becoming a problem in their industry.

Yet three-quarters of the respondents – from organisations of all sizes – admit their organisation is doing nothing actively to tackle staff obesity. Almost four in 10 HR professionals say their organisation does not offer a medical check for employees, even at the initial stage of employment.

When asked why their organisation was not tackling obesity, one respondent said: “Our organisation tackles most issues that restrict an individual’s ability to do their job, but obesity seems to have a stigma that means it is not mentioned.”

This seems to be the experience of most employers, with 69% of respondents agreeing that “obesity is a topic that is not discussed enough in our organisation”.

This taboo appears to be hiding, or perhaps feeding, a level of ingrained discrimination and resentment against obese workers.
When asked which of two identically-qualified applicants, but one of ‘normal weight’ and the other obese, would be hired, an astonishing 93% would choose the former, purely on the basis of their weight.

Almost a third of the HR professionals consider obesity is a valid medical reason for not employing a person, while 11% think that firms can fairly dismiss people just because they are obese. 

This discrimination is not limited to recruitment. Fifteen per cent of respondents admit their organisation would be less likely to promote an obese employee, and 12% suggest they are not suitable for client-facing roles.

This is where employers could get into legal hot water. Although there is no specific protection against so-called ‘fattism’ as there is for other forms of workplace discrim-ination, employers cannot simply dismiss people because of their size. Instead, they must prove their weight has had a negative impact on the business.


And if someone becomes obese as a result of depression, diabetes or arthritis, they could be protected under the Disability Discrimination Act.

The legal issues are just one area HR professionals will have to address around obesity, which, as one res-pondent put it, “is a topical issue that will achieve greater attention in 2006”.

With the government preparing a campaign to raise awareness of the steps both individuals and employers can take to prevent obesity, HR will come under increasing pressure to form policies for obese employees.

Deliberately ignoring the larger members of society will no longer be an option.

Swansea named UK’s fittest city

 If you need encouragement to get healthy, then you should move to Swansea, which has been named the fittest city in the UK.
Research by medical insurance firm PruHealth saw the Welsh city beat off Bristol and Bolton to gain the accolade of most healthy city across a range of fitness measurements.

London staggered in as least fit city in the UK owing to a poor provision of fitness facilities per head, its inhabitants recording low exercise levels and high levels of alcohol consumption.

Researchers used a combination of techniques to arrive at their conclusions, including surveys, online research and government statistics.

Fitness ratings for each city were based on a range of criteria, including the percentage of smokers, the amount of exercise undertaken, the frequency of medical check-ups, alcohol consumption, and the provision of sporting facilities.



1 Swansea

1 London

2 Bristol

2 Bradford

3 Bolton

3 Southend on Sea

4 Manchester

4 Sunderland

5 Swindon

5 Luton

Facts and figures

  • 12% suggest that obese workers are not suitable for client-facing roles
  • 93% would employ the ‘normal weight’ person and only 7% would employ the obese one
  •  30% agree that ‘obesity is a valid medical reason for not employing a person’
  • 47%  think obesity negatively affects employee output
  • 11% think employers can fairly dismiss people  just because they are obese

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