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Leslie LeBreton, assistant brand manager for Campbell Canada

J.P. MOCZULSKI

Expanding waistlines create risks to your career, according to a new study that found overweight employees are much more likely to be overlooked for opportunities, advancement and pay raises than slimmer staff.

At the same time, research shows that Canadians are increasingly packing on the pounds: More than half of the population is overweight. And another recent study found that current stresses of work life are leading people to increasingly reach for comfort food that could lead to even more weight gain. Here's what you need to weigh about the dilemma.

Weighty impact

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The weight of obesity on a career can be severe, with those who are obese finding themselves twice as likely to earn a low salary, four times more likely to suffer bullying about their weight and six times more likely to feel their appearance has caused them to miss out on a promotion than those in lower weight ranges, according to a survey of 2,000 British workers by pollster YouGov.

And those who are very obese were four times more likely to say they never feel confident and twice as likely to dread applying for a new job than those who are not overweight. That translates into discrimination, with 25 per cent of obese employees saying they regularly suffered negative comments about their weight from co-workers. Only 16 per cent say they feel supported by colleagues in their efforts to lose weight.

That stereotyping extends to management, with 25 per cent of male bosses and 15 per cent of female bosses included in the British study saying they would turn down a potential candidate solely on the grounds of the person being overweight. In fact, 10 per cent of the managers said they routinely reject candidates who are overweight. The most common reasons employers gave? Perceptions that obese people are less energetic, lack self-control or are not hard workers.

It's a big issue in Canada as well, where 51 per cent of the population is now overweight, according to the latest numbers from Statistics Canada. Obesity has been on a steady rise since 1974 and now affects 17 per cent of Canadians, up from 15 per cent in 2003.

The stresses of business life seem destined to add to the weight gain, according to a study by job site careerbuilder.com, which found that 43 per cent of U.S. workers say they have gained weight in their current jobs. Of those, 25 per cent gained more than 10 pounds and 12 per cent had gained 20 or more. They blamed snacking at their desks and higher workloads in the tough economy. Also, 91 per cent said they are too busy to exercise on their lunch break.

What does the law say ?

There is no way to legally complain about weight discrimination in Canada because no federal or provincial labour laws prohibit discrimination based on size or weight.

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"The Canadian Human Rights Act does not include size or weight as grounds for discrimination; therefore, we haven't had any cases and don't take complaints," said Stacy Ann Morris, spokesperson for the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa.

Nor has anyone fought an employment discrimination case based solely on the issue of weight. "It probably will become a legal issue in Canada. It's just a matter of time," says Sheryl Johnson, a lawyer for employment law firm Grosman, Grosman & Gale in Toronto.

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FIGHTING SIZE DISCRIMINATION

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What employers should do - Show empathy. Being obese is not a conscious choice and the causes are complex.

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- Provide a wellness program and allow overweight employees the time flexibility to be able to use support services.

- Encourage a healthy culture. Provide healthy food choices in the cafeteria, and time for workers to eat. Stock vending machines with water and healthy snacks instead of sodas and candy.

- Don't create competition: A "biggest loser" contest only reinforces discrimination.

What employees should do

- Speak up. Grinning and bearing harmful remarks just promulgates them. Let people who are commenting on weight know in a calm voice that it is unacceptable.

- Document incidents. If the situation is not improving, take notes on incidents and take your evidence to human resources or higher.

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- Nurture self-confidence. How you feel about yourself has a lot to do with how others perceive you. Be positive and professional.

- Don't join in on snide remarks.

Source: Arya Sharma, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and director of the Canadian Obesity Network.

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CASE STUDY

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Company: Campbell Canada Co., 800 employees

Program: Wellness Within

What it entails: Program encourages employees to set clear wellness goals, which may include weight loss or simply keeping active and eating well. Participants receive gift cards of from $10 to $50 dollars for participating and meeting weight and fitness goals.

Results: In a weight-loss challenge last year, 19 per cent of employees were obese and 36 per cent were overweight at the start in the spring; by the end of summer, the numbers had dropped to 17 per cent obese and 33 per cent overweight, according to Fanny Karolev, the program manage.

Success story: Leslie LeBreton, assistant brand manager for Campbell, lost 45 pounds over the past year based on advice she got in the Wellness Within program.

How she did it: Committing to a combination of lunchtime walks, after-work running and paying attention to nutrition. Ms. LeBreton says the secret is committing to a lifestyle change - not a diet: "It wasn't calorie counting but eating healthy, balanced meals and staying active." She started packing her own lunches, including snacks of carrots and fruit. "Before, I would skip lunch altogether and then get fast food on the way home and overeat at night."

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Career benefit: She says being obese made her timid in meetings; she avoided presentations and the spotlight because she was self-conscious. Since shedding the weight: "I sleep better and I have more energy and that helps me get more done. But just as importantly, I feel better about myself. Now when it's my turn to speak, I am much more confident."

Realization: "I was holding myself back. My perception that people were judging me because of my size became my reality, because I didn't have enough confidence to be myself. I wouldn't volunteer and didn't want to take a leadership role and be in the forefront in the public eye."

Now, she gets compliments from the boss and co-workers, and recently volunteered to join a company committee she thinks will lead to more career opportunities.

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MOST ACTIVE JOBS

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Mail carriers: Average 18,991 steps a day

Restaurant servers: 10,987 steps

Construction workers: 9,646 steps

Nurses: 8,646 steps

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MOST SEDENTARY JOBS

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Police officers: 5,336 steps

Lawyers: 5,062 steps

Teachers: 4,726 steps

Secretaries: 4,327 steps a day

Source: American Council on Exercise, which recommends walking 10,000 steps a day for fitness.

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BY THE NUMBERS

$4.3-billion

Cost to Canadian economy for lost productivity and health care for obesity-related chronic conditions.

2

Times more likely obese workers are to be absent from work due to illness or to have reduced activity due to injury or long-term health problems.

6 per cent

Average lower wage in the U.S. of obese women, compared with other women doing same.

66 per cent

Increase in incidence of weight discrimination in U.S. workplaces over the past decade.

250

Extra calories eaten by Laval University students at a buffet after doing 45 minutes of challenging work on a computer, compared with those who relaxed.

Sources: Public Health Agency of Canada; Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; Statistics Canada; Western Michigan University

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