Despite obesity rising to epidemic status in the U.S. and remaining one of the most significant international health issues, the field of applied psychology has yet to focus research efforts on developing a more comprehensive framework for understanding its effects in the workplace.
While there’s no dearth of research on obesity in the organizational setting, the existing research is highly atheoretical and has led to a laundry list of negative outcomes for obese employees. However, with no unifying theoretical underpinning, it’s difficult to succinctly translate findings into a comprehensive approach to mitigating the negative effects of obesity in the workplace.
To address this gap, the authors of the current study (Johnson & Schminke, 2020) embark on a cross-discipline literature review within medicine, economics, sociology, and other fields to create a framework for improving our understanding of when and how obesity leads to negative outcome for employees.
SNAP JUDGMENTS VERSUS NUANCED THINKING
The researchers use a continuum model of impression formation to help conceptualize the diverse research on obesity and workplace outcomes. The model states that judgments are based on the amount of cognitive resources an evaluator expends, and this cognitive effort lies on a continuum. Low levels of effort are associated with “snap judgements,” or judgments based on superficial information. When using this thinking method, impressions or evaluations are formed automatically. However, when people use more cognitive resources, they consider more individuating factors, resulting in more nuanced judgment. Under this thinking method, impressions are formed based on the thoughts and emotions that evaluators feel in response to the individuating factors they are observing. This is more in line with the common adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
In general, this model suggests that the more cognitive resources evaluators use, the more likely it is that they will make fair judgments. However, the authors argue that integrating the cross-discipline perspectives on obesity outcomes tells a more complex story.
The researchers place stigma processes, which are associated with stereotyping and discrimination, on the far edge of the continuum. These can be conceptualized as superficial “snap judgments.” Research consistently demonstrates that obesity is stigmatized, by which a decision-maker categorizes an individual as obese or not obese. People categorized as obese are at risk of adverse outcomes associated with biased views of obesity.
The economic-based judgments lie in the middle of the continuum, as they require a deeper level of thought than stigmatization. Here, a person categorized as obese can be viewed as a cost factor, where the evaluator assumes the employee will be less productive and have higher absenteeism, ultimately impacting company costs. This may have negative outcomes on hiring, promotion, or performance decisions.
Finally, on the other extreme of the continuum is the medical perspective. In this perspective, individuating processes—or those that consider unique, individual factors–are used to consider the obesity-related health risks people may have. This can also lead to negative judgements of obese people. Research here covers the most prevalent medical concerns associated with obesity: joint pain, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. All of these can be associated with lower performance, a need for accommodation on the job, or higher absenteeism.
WHEN DO THESE NEGATIVE OUTCOMES OCCUR?
Two additional variables can impact whether a decision-maker engages in categorization or individuating processes: motivation and information. People with low motivation or little available information are less likely to expend the mental effort necessary to make more complex judgments. Rather, they are likely to rely on simple, categorical judgments when making decisions about obese people, such as applying existing stereotypes or stigma. Those with greater motivation may move further on the continuum to make economic or medical judgments.
Additional factors can influence the amount of information available to a decision-maker, such as time available to make the decision, complexity of the decision, and level of expertise of the decision-maker. To encourage deeper-level cognitive processing, these factors should be increased.
The researchers highlight several key implications for practitioners. First, this research can be used to combat negative stereotypes against obesity that do not hold up, such as laziness. Second, while medical research clearly documents the relationship between obesity and negative health outcomes, the individual differences in health outcomes are too diverse for any decision-maker to assume that an obese employee will experience any specific negative health outcome. Therefore, it is inappropriate to make a decision regarding an employee based on health assumptions related to obesity. Further, such evaluations may constitute legal discrimination, as more countries and U.S. states place obese individuals in a legally-protected class. At the very least, these discriminatory decisions can indirectly harm companies by excluding or limiting employees who otherwise have high potential within a company.
Johnson, M. A., & Schminke, M. (2020). Thinking big: An integrative conceptual review of the workplace consequences of obesity and a theoretical extension of the processes that create them. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(7), 671–692.