04/01/2008

Obesity Issues and Career Counseling

By Morgan Litchfield

It is not hard to notice that the waistline of America is growing. The number of obese adults has grown by thirty percent in the last two decades and is rising faster than the gross domestic product. Along with the physical ramifications of this obesity epidemic, the work environment is becoming an increasingly bitter and hostile place. Most obese and overweight individuals at one time feel slighted or discriminated at work. Although obesity is often seen as a personal health issue, the impact that obesity can also have on employers and the work environment is something that should not be ignored. Therefore, career development professionals need to be aware of the trends, issues, and concerns that obese clients may face related to work satisfaction and potential discrimination in the job search.

Health Care Costs

It costs the average employer approximately $114 a month per employee for health insurance coverage. The cost jumps to $620 on average for an obese employee. Obesity related health problems account for 39 million lost work days and $2.4 million dollars in paid sick leave. With the decline in deaths related to infectious disease in our nation, obesity has now become one of the most preventable causes of death in the United States. For some employers, hiring and retaining an obese employee can be viewed as a financial liability. This overbearing pressure leaves many plump workers feeling the crunch to drop those extra pounds or face harsh conditions or unfair discrimination within the workplace. Therefore, career development professionals are needed to help their clients process these issues and become aware of potential biases that may exist within the world of work.

Psychological Impact

It has been said that negative attitudes towards obesity is the last socially acceptable form of prejudice. For overweight clients, the psychological impact of obesity can be just as harmful as the physical effects. Therefore individuals dealing with obesity related issues often have deep rooted psychological, emotional, and self-esteem related challenges that they face on a daily basis, both inside and outside the workplace. Many average weight individuals today associate obesity with being slothful or gluttonous. Self indulgent behaviors such as these can often be viewed as a sign of weakness or a lack of self control, and are not viewed as positive attributes that help to foster a pleasant and productive work environment. The enduring shame and humiliation incurred by obese people can lead to self isolation and depression, emphasizing the need for obesity-related challenges to be confronted head-on, both within personal and career counseling sessions. It is our task as career development professionals to support our clients as they navigate potential discrimination, while also providing a positive forum in which they can voice their fears and concerns without judgment.

Discrimination

Moreover, apart from the physical and psychological effects that obesity can have on an individual, blatant forms of discrimination often still exist within the workplace. In regards to salary, obese men and women earn approximately 1 to 6 percent less than their average weight counterparts, with obese women being the hardest hit. Not only are obese individuals feeling the effects of weight in their paychecks, they are also being socially disparaged and singled out.

Currently, Michigan is the only state that has weight specific discrimination laws. In the few law suits that have been filed because of weight discrimination, Title IVV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is usually the case that is sighted. The law states that everyone has the right to employment and should not be discriminated against in regards to race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Unfortunately, there is no specific mention of personal size, weight, or stature of an individual's body. More specific legislation is needed in regards to work place discrimination and body size, and further research from career development professionals may help to advocate for greater equality in this area.

Suggestions for Employers

Since the U.S. population does not seem to be shrinking, both the psychological and financial impacts of obesity are definite concerns for many companies. Our profession may be able to facilitate a greater understanding of obesity among employers via effective consultation that aims to promote acceptance and advocate for health and wellness training for employees. Individual employers and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP's) can offer services that encourage healthy nutrition and regular exercise among employees. Ultimately these services could save a company countless dollars in healthcare costs and potential liability from discrimination law suits. For example, many organizations already subsidize health club memberships and have on-site weight reduction programs available to employees. Such workplace programs are highly valued preventative services with a definite return on investment. Physically and emotionally healthy employees make for a happy and productive work environment. Along with advocating for employer sponsored health related-services, career development practitioners can also provide one-on-one guidance and counseling for obese individuals as they navigate the world of work. We can also help to advocate for our obese clients when working with employers through consultation and professional training. In summary, obesity related-issues are on the rise in our nation, and career counselors may wish to consider additional training and preparation in order to better serve clients of all shapes and sizes.

 

Morgan Litchfield is currently a graduate student at Mississippi State University , Meridian. She is in the Community Counseling program and is working on an internship at Best of Both Worlds. She is focusing on the specific needs of women with drug, alcohol and other addictions. Morgan is a member of the Mississippi Counselor Association. She can be reached at morganlitchfield@hotmail.com


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