Workplace wellness programs that encourage employees to take charge of their own weight may have a detrimental effect on those with obesity, according to research published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The study, by researchers at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen and Britain’s Leeds Beckett University, found these types of programs can potentially result in increased stigma and feelings of discrimination, as well as employees feeling more responsible for their weight while perceiving themselves to have less control over it.

“Who is responsible for obesity?” asked Laetitia Mulder, a professor in human resources management at the University of Groningen, in a press release. “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.”

Read: Employers urged to boost tracking of obesity efforts

Focusing on the employer’s role in fostering good health can lead to improvements on this issue, according to the study. For example, the food choices that are available in the workplace can have a major impact on employees’ eating choices. Rather than focusing on the choice an employee is making in the cafeteria, the employer can take responsibility by offering more healthy options more affordably, the study suggested.

It also found programs that focus on employee actions have reported negligible or modest effects on employee weight. Further, employee-focused programs can have a negative effect, increasing the potential for stigmatizing weight and leading to discrimination in the workplace. When the study’s participants were presented with concepts from employee-focused health programs, perceptions of weight stigma and weight-based discrimination increased.

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“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,” said Mulder. “However, this effect became stronger when people had been confronted with concepts from an employee-focused program.”

Indeed, the potential for outright discrimination was clear. The study found those exposed to employee-focused health promotion concepts were more likely to want to hire a woman who wasn’t obese. This increased preference didn’t occur among those exposed to employer-focused health promotion concepts.

“When developing a health program, organizations should not solely focus on employee responsibility, but should look at what the organization can do to bring about healthy behaviour,” said Mulder.

Read: 5 steps to promoting nutrition in the workplace

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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