Monday, November 23, 2009

Is Your Career in Jeopardy Because of Your Weight?

As Congress debates health care reform, it's worth noting that employers are already taking steps to bring down their health care costs, whether it's setting up wellness programs for workers -- or requiring employees who have certain health risks to pay higher insurance deductibles. Before you reach for that second piece of pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, read this story I recently wrote for Gannett:

Perhaps you’re working extra hard these days to hang onto your job, or if you’re looking for work, you’re using every avenue you know to find a job.

In either case, better check out your waistline if you’re serious about having a job in the future.

That’s because if you’re carrying too much weight – enough to be considered overweight or obese – then you’re a concern to employers.

Studies have shown that not only do overweight workers have higher absenteeism and healthcare costs, but they are less productive. Such statistics become even more important as companies are keeping only key performers and are scrutinizing ways to trim healthcare costs.
In addition, several courts have recently ruled that employers also must pay for weight loss surgery for overweight employees who need operations for work-related injuries.

The courts have stated that the weight-loss procedures are needed to guarantee the successful repair of the initial injury.
All these factors serve to heighten concern by employers about the liability of overweight workers, says Marsha Petrie Sue, a professional speaker and author on personal accountability issues.

“I think employers are doing what they feel they need to do. Their profits are down, and they’ve got to look at ways to cut costs,” Petri Sue says. “If you have two people apply for a job, and one is overweight and one is not, who would you hire? You know they have to be thinking about it.”

Petrie Sue says that employers balking at “paying for people’s habits” is a growing debate. “You can legislate not discriminating against someone for sexual orientation or based on their gender,” she says. “But you can’t really legislate responsibility.”

Denise Wheeler, an employment lawyer with Fowler White Boggs in Fort Myers, Fla., says that while obese workers can claim they fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they have not been very successful winning such claims. However, there are new provisions under that law, and while it has not yet been tested, workers who lost their jobs because they were overweight may find an easier road to suing employers, she says.

Still, Wheeler says that she believes companies may step up calls for workers to maintain healthier weights. “Some employers have gotten very aggressive with their smoking policies, even dismissing workers who smoke on their own time. Are we going to see employers checking the BMI (body mass index) of workers and deciding they’ll terminate if it reaches a certain number?”

Petrie Sue says she believes more employers will begin to put employees “on probation” who don’t lose weight, and may even tie their weight directly to performance standards.
“If the employee has health issues, the employer may ask what they can do to help, but they’re also going to ask the employee what they think the consequences should be for not changing,” she says.

Many employers already require employees who smoke, are overweight or have risk factors such as high blood pressure to pay higher healthcare premiums. Recently the American Institute for Cancer Research reported that about 100,500 new cases of cancer are caused by obesity every year. But with about one-third of U.S. adults classified as obese – or about 30 more pounds over a healthy weight – the question is how involved will employers get to help win the battle of the bulge?

Americans spend about $30 billion a year on weight-loss products, but stress – such as working longer hours -- has been shown to contribute to weight gain. Add in the unhealthy servings of some workplace vending machines, and it’s clear that it’s a battle that needs to be waged in several ways, Petrie Sue says.

“I do think employers have some responsibility. If they don’t have a wellness program, they can go to a local gym and negotiate a deal so employees can go for 30 minutes every day and exercise, and still be paid for that time,” she says. “They also need to get rid of the donuts and coffee in the break room and instead have healthy options and a refrigerator so people can bring healthy food.”

For job seekers, the nearly 10 percent unemployment rate means that they may need to be even more proactive in trimming the waistline. A Wayne State University study found last year that overweight workers are viewed negatively, and nowhere is that more evident than in the hiring process, especially if they’re applying for a job with face-to-face interactions.
Petrie Sue says for job seekers, it may pay to be up front about the issue.

“You can just mention in an interview that you’re on a real health kick,” Petrie Sue says. “I think that way you’re sending a clear message.”

What do you think about the debate over weight in the workplace?



Kingsley Tagbo, IT Career Coach said...

I recommend the "Power of Full Engagement" by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

Their insights on dealing with this issue are really good.

Paula Caligiuri said...

I enjoyed reading your article and sense that this bias is real. In fact (I'm a geeky academic), there was an interesting research article in the journal of Human Resource Management (vol. 46, 2, pp. 203-222). In a controlled study, these researchers found that weight had a "modest but significant" effect on factors such as hireability and performance capacity.

Anita said...

Thanks so much for providing this additional resource!