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Could some workplace health programmes increase weight stigma?

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Specific types of workplace health programmes may increase weight stigma and discrimination – and even lead to increased obesity and decreased wellbeing, finds a new study.

Programmes that encourage employees to take responsibility for their own weight may have detrimental effects for employees with obesity, as shown in the research.

These effects range from feeling increasingly responsible for their weight but perceiving they have less control over it, to increased workplace weight stigma and discrimination.

It was conducted by Susanne Täuber and Laetitia B. Mulder of Department of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior, University of Groningen, Netherlands; and Stuart W. Flint, School of Sport, Leeds Beckett University, United Kingdom.

Employee vs employer focused policies

Published in Frontiers in Psychology, the study finds these pitfalls could be avoided through programs focusing on the employer’s responsibility to maintain employee health.

“Who is responsible for obesity?” asks Professor Laetitia Mulder of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “We are often told it’s someone’s own responsibility, but people tend to forget that the institutions which shape our immediate environment strongly influence our behaviour.”

ALSO READ: J&J: Towards the 2020 vision of having the healthiest workforce in the world

The authors put forward the following workplace instances to highlight the employee vs employer led policies organisations may have in place:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Process behind the study

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 programme, this increases weight stigma and weight-based discrimination compared with concepts from an employer-focused programme.

So, what does this mean?

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

Strikingly, this effect even extended to outright weight discrimination: people exposed to employee-focused health promotion were more likely to prefer hiring a woman without obesity over a woman with obesity. This discrimination did not occur in people exposed to employer-focused health promotion.

Further, 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.

“When developing a health programme, organisations should not solely focus on employee responsibility, but should look at what the organisation can do to bring about healthy behaviour,” explains Mulder.

Photo / 123RF

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