Managing Overweight and Obesity: Workplace Culture & Design

Persistent weight bias can lead to weight stigma and weight-based discrimination, a pervasive trend in the U.S. with serious consequences for the health and well-being of employees.

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January 09, 2020

For employers seeking to align their weight management strategy with the latest evidence, this resource offers recommendations on creating a comprehensive benefits package to treat obesity, including behavior-based interventions and pharmacological and surgical treatment.

Weight bias in the workplace - negative attitudes toward employees with overweight and obesity – has the potential to undermine the success of comprehensive weight management strategies. Persistent weight bias can lead to weight stigma and weight-based discrimination, a pervasive trend in the U.S. with serious consequences for the health and well-being of employees.82

Weight bias can exacerbate behaviors that impede weight loss or contribute to weight gain; studies show that people who experience weight stigma turn to food as a coping mechanism and also avoid physical activity.83-87 Evidence also shows that higher levels of weight bias internalization are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disease.88 People with obesity also report delaying preventive care due to disrespect from or negative attitudes of providers related to their weight.89

The prevalence of weight discrimination is similar to reported rates of race and age discrimination, yet there are no federal laws against it.

On average, 10.3% of women reported daily or lifetime discrimination due to weight, while men were half as likely to report such experiences (4.9%). Women with a BMI of 30–35 were three times more likely than men in the same weight group to report weight/height discrimination (20.6% vs 6.1%).82

Nutritious Food and Movement

Nutritious food choices and movement at work can help increase the likelihood that employees with obesity are successful with behavioral, pharmacological and/or surgical treatments. In promoting these things, employers can also protect their investment in weight management programs and benefits.

The office foodscape can undermine employees’ weight management efforts


According to a recent study, almost a quarter of employees (23%) obtain food and beverages from work each week and most of this food is high in empty calories, sodium and refined grains. Top items obtained at work included regular soft drinks, cookies or brownies, fries, tortilla and potato chips, candy containing chocolate and crackers.91

Nutritious Food

There are a number of evidence-based ways to promote a healthy diet at work, including serving appropriate portions, reducing the cost of healthy foods, and providing visuals or nudges. However, surveys indicate that evidence based strategies are currently underutilized by employers: In 2018, 55% of employers had nutritional labeling in place, 52% had healthy food options in the café or vending machine and 25% had subsidies or price differentials for healthy food in on-site café.43


Research indicates that the use of stairwell signs and prompts, access to places for exercise like walking trails and fitness centers, and flexible work time for exercise, can all promote physical activity throughout the day. Surveys show that many employers have these offerings (and more) in place: In 2018, 72% offered on-site fitness classes, 70% offered subsidies or discounts for off-site gym memberships, 67% provided treadmill or sit-to-stand desks, and 39% offered stretch breaks.43

Workplace Culture & Design Checklist

  • Determine if weight bias and stigma are a problem in your workplace. Ask employees about their experiences with weight bias or stigma in focus groups or through employee surveys.
  • Incorporate weight bias training in workplace trainings. Evaluate practical ways training can be incorporated into the employee lifecycle (e.g. onboarding, leadership development, etc.). When asked for their perspective on the best way to reduce weight-based stigma, individuals with obesity rated inclusion of education about weight bias in existing anti-harassment workplace trainings as one of the top three most impactful and feasible strategies worth pursuing.92
  • Evaluate how you communication about overweight and obesity. Examine current and future communication materials for stigmatizing content (e.g. headless images of people with obesity, language or images that suggests a person’s body weight is a reflection on their character or intelligence, use of pejorative language or inappropriate humor). Research shows that even well-intentioned public health campaigns promote stigma and shame. Instead, employers should communicate in a way that is respectful, actionable and promotes health.
  • Make nutritious food choices easy. Assess your café, vending and catering offerings to determine whether you are providing appropriately healthful options to employees. Use this information to fuel the implementation of policies that reduce exposure to unhealthy foods (e.g. creating healthy checkouts in cafes to avoid impulse food purchases), and support smarter food choices (e.g. serve appropriate portions, subsidize healthy items).
  • Enable movement throughout the work day. Look for opportunities to reduce sitting (e.g. stretch breaks, standing desks) and promote movement (e.g. walking meetings, easily accessible stairwells, on-site fitness centers) in the “daily life” of employees.
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  1. Nutritious Food and Movement
  2. Workplace Culture & Design Checklist