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The ethic of care: An HR strategy to address obesity in the workplace

By Leon C. Prieto, Dr Babita Mathur-Helm and Kasey N. Dawson

  • OCT 2018
  • Tags Insights, Strategic Management
12 minutes to read

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Obesity in the workplace: counting the costs

Despite the importance attached to wellness and healthy eating in many countries, millions of people around the world are overweight, with obesity growing at an alarming rate. Someone is obese when their body mass index is greater than or equal to 30. According to the World Health Organization, of the 1.9 billion adults classified as overweight, 600 million (more than 30%) are obese. In the United States, one in four workers is obese, according to a Gallup study. The obesity phenomenon is not only an indictment of modern society; it is also proving to be very expensive for employers whose ability to compete in the market place is heavily dependent on a productive workforce and streamlined cost structures.

Obesity generally means a higher-than-normal rate of absenteeism, lower productivity and rising healthcare costs. A recent study put the cost of obesity among full-time employees at a staggering $73.1 billion. According to the US Center of Disease Control (CDC), the medical costs for obese individuals in 2008 were $1,429 higher than those for people of normal weight. Obese employees tend to be less productive than non-obese employees because they often perform their tasks less efficiently, require longer rest periods, are more susceptible to illness and are more likely to be injured on the job.

The obesity phenomenon is not only an indictment of modern society; it is also proving to be very expensive for employers whose ability to compete in the market place is heavily dependent on a productive workforce and streamlined cost structures.

Sectors most severely affected by obesity

In a recent study, the prevalence of obesity was found to be greatest among transportation workers. Most tasks performed in the transformation sector are sedentary and so workers are less likely to exercise during the day. Insufficient physical activity on transport routes, long hours, a lack of scheduled breaks or meals, and a paucity of healthy food options all contribute to significant weight gain. Studies have shown that bus drivers, for example, show consistently higher rates of obesity, absenteeism, morbidity and mortality than employees in other sectors.

Healthcare workers (particularly nurses) are also a high-risk group for obesity. In a study of 5000 registered nurses, 54% were found to be overweight or obese. Nurses cited insufficient physical activity, poor diet, sleep deprivation and high stress levels as contributing factors. To keep their energy levels up during lengthy shifts, nurses often consume more food, which leads to weight gain. Interestingly, the more well-paid health practitioners, such as doctors, are less likely to be obese because they can afford to eat more healthily and go to gym to stay in shape.

Worldwide discrimination against individuals with obesity

In the United States, obese people face a great deal of discrimination and prejudice because of their weight. One might ask whether the obese have any special rights that would deter such prejudice. In general, non-morbid obesity is not considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it is not seen to significantly limit people’s day-to-day activities. Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission views morbid obesity as protected under the ADA, which should theoretically shield people against discriminatory treatment, some courts have not concurred with this view when judging discrimination-related cases.

Obese employees tend to be less productive than non-obese employees because they often perform their tasks less efficiently, require longer rest periods, are more susceptible to illness and are more likely to be injured on the job.

South Africa has the dubious reputation of being among the three most overweight nations in the world. As many as 56% of women and 29% of men are overweight, while 27% of women and 10% of men are obese. This can have serious implications for people’s employment and advancement prospects. To discourage weight-based discrimination in various industries, South Africa has been adapting its labour legislation to more proactively and sensitively address the health and emotional issues that often go hand in hand with overweight and obesity. But it is early days still.

Weight-based discrimination in the workplace has been prevalent in Australia for many years. There is no national law that prohibits such discrimination. However, the state of Victoria prohibits overweight workers from being discriminated against (the only state to do so). Nearly 30% of the complaints lodged with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission pertaining to ‘physical features’ have been about weight-related discrimination.

South Africa has the dubious reputation of being among the three most overweight nations in the world.

In the UK, it is acknowledged that weight-based discrimination can be problematic in the working environment. However, the UK Equality Act does not recognise obesity as a disability requiring special consideration and/or treatment.

The ethic of care approach to tackling obesity in the workplace

What should companies be doing to tackle the obesity problem, both in the interests of their bottom line and society as a whole?

Given many countries’ policy and legislative shortcomings, it is incumbent upon the HR function in individual companies to introduce appropriate measures to mitigate the potentially adverse consequences of obesity among employees. One strategy that is gaining traction is the ‘ethic of care’ approach. In broad terms, it involves employers recognising employees’ needs and willingly shouldering the burden of meeting those needs.

The ethic of care approach is particularly appropriate when obesity poses a threat to efficiency as it emphasises the value that all employees bring to the company and encourages overweight and obese employees to make positive lifestyle changes.

The ethic of care approach is particularly appropriate when obesity poses a threat to efficiency, as it emphasises the value that all employees bring to the company and encourages overweight and obese employees to make positive lifestyle changes. Among the helpful measures that HR could take are: introducing a company policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of weight; introducing wellness programmes for all employees, not just those who are overweight or obese; offering discounted gym memberships to employees; facilitating the formation of support groups in which employees facing similar weight-related challenges can interact and find the motivation to pursue a healthier lifestyle; and conducting a job analysis and redesign exercise to help reduce the incidence of obesity among employees.

Conclusion

Obesity and how to tackle it in an effective and sustainable manner are likely to preoccupy management teams well into the future. Although HR departments should not have to carry the responsibility for obesity management on their own, they are well-placed to conceptualise and drive initiatives that encourage unity, rather than division, among employees – regardless of their particular size or shape. This is the essence of the ethic of care approach, which involves creating a physical environment that is conducive to more healthy living while also offering support at a deeper, more emotional level. Too often, obese people find themselves isolated in a highly judgemental world. Tackling the obesity phenomenon more systematically and honestly will help to imbue companies with a healthier and more human-centred culture.

Although HR departments should not have to bear the responsibility of obesity management on their own, they are well-placed to conceptualise and drive initiatives that encourage unity, rather than division, among employees – regardless of their particular size or shape.

  • Find the original journal article here: Prieto, L. C., Mathur-Helm, B., & Dawson, K. N. (2018). The ethic of care: An HR strategy to address obesity in the workplace. Human Resource Management International Digest, 26(2), 12‒15. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1108/HRMID-07-2017-0131
  • Leon Prieto is Associate Professor of Management at the College of Business, Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia, USA.
  • Dr Babita Mathur-Helm is Senior Lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, Bellville, Western Cape, South Africa.
  • Kasey N. Dawson is based at the Golden Key International Honour Society, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

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