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The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 (13 - 19 May) is Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies. You could be forgiven for thinking that negative body image is a personal problem for “Instagram” obsessed teenagers, rather than an issue for the workplace. However, the impact of poor body image on health and wellbeing is widespread, with over a third of adults affected according to a recent survey. It can also present numerous problems at work.

How does your employee wellbeing strategy shape up when it comes to body image? Do your policies promote mental (and physical) fitness for all or are they fostering a culture of “fat-shaming” or other negative workplace behaviour based on appearance?

Negative body image and the workplace
According to the Body Image research report published by the Mental Health Foundation earlier this week, 35% of adults (25% of men and 45% of women) said they felt depressed because of their body image. In addition to depressive symptoms, negative body image has been linked to increased likelihood of psychological distress and eating disorders. 

Far from being an entirely personal problem, employees’ health and performance at work can be negatively impacted by their body image. The Body Image report highlights one survey, for example, where 17% of women said they would not go to a job interview and 8% would avoid going to work, if they felt badly about their appearance. 

Discrimination and bullying
In addition to potential low morale, absenteeism and poor performance due to mental health issues, body image can also be a trigger for bullying and discrimination in the workplace. 

According to research carried out by the British Liver Trust, 62% of Britons think people are likely to discriminate against someone who is overweight. This figure was given some credence when 25% of adults surveyed admitted that out of two equally qualified candidates they would appoint the one with a healthy weight over a candidate with obesity. 

So-called “fat-shaming” has been described as the “last acceptable form of discrimination” and the same might be said about other slights to body image, for example, bad skin, baldness or hirsutism. However, this isn’t quite true. Discrimination and bullying based on body image can amount to unlawful discrimination where it is connected to a “protected characteristic” in the Equality Act 2010 such as a disability (e.g. a severe facial disfigurement, disability related obesity or hirsutism due to an eating disorder). 

Be careful not to trivialise (or fuel) the problem
To trivialise poor body image as just a matter of vanity seriously underestimates the magnitude of the problem and the potential severity of the consequences. The Body Image report found that just over one in eight adults admitted that they had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image. 

It is important for employers to grasp the significance of this issue. They must also be careful not to fuel the problem. This can happen in subtle ways such as not properly addressing appearance-based bullying and harassment if it isn’t obviously related to a “protected characteristic”; or enforcing dress code/grooming policies or wellbeing initiatives to the point that they promote stigma, for example, “fat-shaming” obese employees by presuming that they are lazy or assuming those with skin conditions have poor personal care.

Body image and wellbeing strategies at work: how we can help
The Government called upon employers to invest in workplace wellness schemes in its 2016 “Improving Lives: Work, Health and Disability Green Paper”, stating that “investing in workplace inclusivity, health and wellbeing is critical.” 

Given the rise in mental health issues at work, many employers are now giving careful thought to employee wellbeing. In the past, body image may have been viewed as a lightweight issue, outside the scope of wellbeing in the workplace. However, it now clearly merits more serious consideration by employers and certainly inclusion in a wellbeing strategy.

To find out more about how to develop a balanced and needs-based wellbeing strategy for your workforce book a place on our seminar here.

HR & Legal / Absence management / Sickness absence / Wellbeing / News