Over a quarter of Canadians live with obesity, an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a health risk. Compared to other health conditions, there are significant barriers to healthcare, often leaving it untreated. Individuals living with obesity experience a wide range of adverse physical, social, and mental impacts that can extend into the workplace.
Obesity is closely linked with several life-threatening health conditions and recognized as a chronic health condition by the WHO and Canadian Medical Association, yet treatment is often not covered under employer-sponsored benefits plans. It is widely and incorrectly viewed as a result of lifestyle choices, leaving employees living with obesity feeling isolated and without access to proper medical treatment.
The Stigma of Obesity
Individuals living with obesity face stigma throughout their lives, including in the healthcare system and in the workplace. Stigma can manifest in both the actions and words of other people in addition to the physical environment. For example, seating in most settings is typically not designed to accommodate those living with obesity.
Many people aren’t aware they have weight bias beliefs and attitudes, driven by misinformation and stereotypes about weight and people living with obesity. Stigma and weight bias increase the likelihood that those living with this condition will be diagnosed with a mental health condition, hinders access to support and treatment options, and impacts financial wellness by limiting employment opportunities and professional development.
Obesity and Employer Sponsored Benefit Plans
Although obesity is recognized as a chronic health condition, treatment is often not covered under employee benefits plans. Unlike other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and chronic obstructive lung disease, obesity is viewed as a lifestyle choice. However, for the sake of the health of your full team, individuals living with obesity require access to the same standard of care as those living with other chronic diseases.
There are evidence-based medications available to help treat obesity, but these medications can fall into the category of lifestyle drugs which are often not covered by benefits plans. Lifestyle drugs are defined as medications taken to satisfy a non-medical or non-health-related goal. However, weight management medication prescribed to those living with obesity has proven effective in reaching both medical and health-related goals. Excluding these drugs from employee benefits plans furthers the stigma of obesity and creates yet another obstacle for those seeking treatment.
What Can Employers Do To Help Employees Living With Obesity?
Employers should recognize that staff living with obesity are dealing with a complex medical condition that impacts them every day. Review workplace policies to ensure they are not contributing to weight bias or stigma – removing the blame and shame associated with obesity is one of the easiest things employers and employees can do. Employer wellness programs focused on eating less and moving more can do more harm than good and further stigmatize those living with obesity. Instead, focus on providing specific support such as nutrition counselling, psychological counselling, or exercise support.
Ask your benefits advisor to review your extended health coverage to ensure your policies are based on an updated scientific understanding of obesity and cover obesity treatments in the same way they cover treatments for other chronic diseases. By acknowledging that obesity is a treatable condition and offering support, both in the workplace environment and through benefit coverage, employers can improve the health of their employees and the productivity of the workplace.
Obesity is no different than any other chronic health condition, and it is important that it is treated as such. Employers have the opportunity to support employees living with obesity by providing treatment coverage under benefits plans to ensure all of their staff have access to the healthcare they need to succeed and to create a workplace culture that is inclusive.