On reading the news about obesity in yesterday’s Guardian, I was struck at the scale of the problem facing the UK. In a BBC item a leading bariatric surgeon said “severe obesity threatens to bankrupt the NHS”. Clearly the problem is more than a passing difficulty and will probably get worse, as our lives involve ever reducing amounts of physical exercise and increasing food consumption. I found myself thinking about the futuristic humans from the Pixar movie Wall-E. This apocalyptic animation presents people as so obese that they are unable even to stand; all their actions are performed in a reclining position. Perhaps the film-maker’s image is not so far from today’s truth.
Unlike previous articles about obesity this one presents the problem as one facing young people, under the age of 25. Indeed 550 bariatric surgeries have been performed on them between 2010 and 2013. Furthermore, 62 of them were on under 18 year olds. Staggeringly, a quarter of us are considered (according to BMI figure) obese and 2.4% morbidly obese. That equates to approximately 1.5 million people in the UK.
The cost of obesity is not just about medical expense.
Last year, I ran a series of workshops in a medium sized company who were struggling to integrate a new employee, a 22 year old graduate who was morbidly obese. Derek got the job on merit, being the best candidate for the position – it was a creative post needing no physical exertion. Little were his bosses expecting the rejection he would receive from his new colleagues? It seemed unfathomable to them that their willingness to employ him would be so questioned by other employees.
No one on the staff team accepted that they were being discriminatory, but clearly they were less accommodating towards Derek than they had been to other new recruits. My intervention was to try to prevent the employment breaking down with a potentially costly and likely successful, tribunal claim being made.
Being able to see the person behind an individual’s physical appearance is a challenge for many – personal prejudices often come to the fore. As an exercise, try to picture someone who is morbidly obese. Where do you see them and what are they doing? This image is likely to drawn from your own pre-judgement. Responding to this image and its expectations it is how unconscious bias comes into play.
I supported and encouraged Derek to share some of his other features and characteristics that were more appealing than perhaps his physical appearance was to his colleagues. It took a while but with time and careful interventions he was able to do this. In the year since we were together, his colleagues have learned to appreciate his qualities, both professional and personal, and he is now a well-established member of the team.
How many people like Derek get the chance of good employment prospects, do they have promotion opportunities and sit on senior management team or in the boardroom. I suspect not as often as they should.
I wonder if you work with someone today, who is struggling to be part of your group. Have you ever thought that their failure to integrate could be as a result of messages received from you and your other colleagues? Situations like these are always co-created and with minimal intervention negative patterns can be broken. You may be able to do something about it today – right now!