Human Resources

How to promote positive body image in the workplace

Steffi Maranan

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Social media has transformed the way people share information, tell stories and connect with others. Revolutionary movements like ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ would not have been possible without the power of social media, but its influence is a double-edged sword.

You need to consider its effects on your people’s wellbeing – because their employee experience impacts your business.

The influence of social media on body image

We live in a generation where you can reach an audience of billions with the click of a button. You can share glimpses into your life with your friends, family and colleagues, or more accurately, glimpses of the life you want them to think you have. Users can define their online persona in whatever light they want. Carefully curated pictures of constructed realities create the illusion that others lead perfect lives, leaving many wondering where they went wrong.

Hard to avoid, even if you don’t have Instagram

The pressure to have the perfect body have been exacerbated by the availability and volume of images on social media. Combined with the ‘likes’ system, which has effectively used behavioural nudges to create a global popularity contest, and the rapid success that ‘influencers’ have had, there has been a global behavioural shift towards unhealthy body image attitudes.

I have even been on the receiving end myself. I recently received some unsolicited advice from a stranger during my gym session that if I wanted to get that “Instagram body”, I needed to incorporate other things into my routine. Not only was this wholly inappropriate, but also a depressing view into the psyche that many have – well if it’s not for Instagram, what is it for?

Body image? Organisations rarely address this issue 

2019’s Mental health awareness week centred on the theme of body image. That focus was long overdue, but what concerned me was how little attention was paid to the role and influence of organisations.

Considering the influx of holistic strategies like ‘employee experience’ and ‘diversity & inclusion’, which aim to consider all aspects of a person’s identity and not just their work identity, I was left disappointed.

Organisations tend to be selective when addressing the topic of mental health, often only focusing on depression and anxiety, if at all. This is at odds with the wide spectrum of disorders under the umbrella of mental health including but not limited to OCD, anorexia and bipolar disorder.

These issues aren’t nearly as widely discussed and most people aren’t aware of just how many mental health disorders exist. For example, in the 2016 Eating Disorders Awareness Week, 4/5 of colleagues surveyed were not informed about eating disorders. When asking ‘how can companies promote positive body image?’, one thing is clear – to open up the dialogue surrounding mental health, people need to be aware of its broad spectrum.

Employees don’t leave their body image at home

The effect that body image can have on an individual’s mental health infiltrates all aspects of our lives. Emotions can’t be turned on and off, nor can they be left at the entrance to work.

The mistake that organisations often make is only thinking about the mental health issues that are caused by work, rather than the issues that people bring to work – like relationship problems, financial pressure, caring responsibilities or bereavement.

Known as ‘employee experience’, this line of thinking considers how a multitude of factors, including those external to the workplace, influence employee behaviours like engagement. The same goes for mental health.

The topic of body image in the workplace barely received any coverage in 2019’s Mental Health Awareness Week and we need to change that. Whether we notice it or not, body image is something we bring with us into the workplace – it can affect the type of friends we make and sometimes even the jobs or promotions we get.

It was recently found that women viewed as ‘overweight’ are paid $8,666 less per year than their leaner counterparts. We often think that body image is influenced from external factors outside of work, but a person’s place of work can in fact be a huge contributor to how an individual sees themselves. According to In a 2016 Eating Disorders Awareness Week survey, 30% of participants reported feeling discriminated or stigmatised against because of their eating disorder at work. The bad news is that this is probably a horribly underreported issue too.

The problem might start in society, but it can’t be automatically dropped once you enter your place of work. Employees are the fundamental foundations of any organisation and conversations about their wellbeing should be at the forefront of business priorities. Body image is an evident contributor to a person’s wellbeing, and if not properly addressed can have adverse effects on mental health.

When employees are suffering from poor mental health, their capacity to be productive and social at work are often hindered. A third to a half of all sickness disability caseloads are related to mental health problems, and stress is the major cause of long term absence in workers (Mental Health Foundation, 2017). In the UK, mental health problems in the workplace affects the economy approximately by £70 billion annually.

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How can companies promote positive body image?

We spend most of our time at work, so it is crucial that organisations act in helping the mental wellbeing of their workforce.

  1. D&I Strategy – As most organisations have a mental health plan, you can start by reviewing your policies and adding ‘body image’ as one of the key targets. For example, you can ensure that your organisation celebrates diversity by advertising internal campaigns using non-Western beauty norms. You could also run a diversity and inclusion survey to get some insight into how inclusive your culture is, and how people feel in general.
  2. Communications – Raising awareness and educating all employees about the different issues related to body image is key. For example, hold a ‘body image month’ which puts the spotlight on topics like social media, plastic surgery, peer pressure, anorexia, bulimia nervosa, body dysmorphic disorders etc. By encouraging learning, it de-stigmatises disorders and issues which can help to create a supportive and open environment.
  3. Working practices – It is important for an organisation to practice the promotion of body image positivity and inclusiveness in the workplace. This can be done by removing any bias from the recruitment or promotion process. For example, when hiring new candidates you can conduct ‘blind’ interviews where you can’t see the candidate’s appearance, and can therefore make a unbiased judgement purely based on capabilities and fit of the company.

What employees can do to help build body positive companies

The people you work with on an everyday basis shape your experiences at work:

  1. Be self-aware – When engaging in casual conversation with colleagues be mindful of the comments you make and the topics of discussion. Avoid topics about appearance and particularly comments about your colleague’s physical appearance – pointing out someone has lost weight is not always taken as a compliment.
  2. Encourage engagement – The constant use of social media has made the exposure to unrealistic images nearly impossible to escape, where many of us scroll through feeds during the working day. When having conversations or casual meetings with your colleagues make it a point to completely engage in the conversation, and not look at your phones/laptops while having these conversations. It’s a small but powerful action, as it prevents people engaging with social media and therefore the images associated with negative body image.
  3. Encourage Openness – Often when someone is suffering from poor self-image they usually keep it to themselves. Creating an environment with your colleagues where there is openness and trust allows them to open up about their body image experiences. This is important as colleagues can find comfort in confiding in you about their troubles and help to alleviate their self-image issues.

Read our report to find out the business benefits to listening to your people
Further reading & references:

Body image in the workplace. – Shehnal Amin – Farrer

The Impossible Standard: ‘Lookism’ in the Workplace. – Tarrah Speer Lee MBA

Mental health as a business asset. Mental Health Foundation

The cost of ignoring mental health in the workplace. – Carley Sime – Forbes

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