Is the Psychological Element of Body Fat More Predictive of Work Performance than Body Fat Status?

March 24, 2023

For years, personal, work, and societal concerns about obesity and body fatness have sparked research efforts across multiple fields. However, previous organizational literature considered fatness as only an objective construct despite research in other disciplines demonstrating a critical subjective component to how body fatness is experienced. 

In his recent article, “Do These Jeans Make Me Feel Fat? Exploring Subjective Fatness, its Workplace Outcomes, and Rethinking the Role of Subjectivity in the Stigmatization Process,” published by Personnel Psychology, Rucks Department of Management Assistant Professor Michael Johnson and co-authors draw on stigma theory, and integrate it with medical research, to explore the workplace implications of subjective fatness, or how big one feels. 

Johnson explains in the video above that the purpose of the study is to explore the implications of how big you feel compared to how big you are. Weight issues continue to be a serious problem for organizations, with 2/3 of the U. S. population being considered obese or overweight, and the same goes for billions of people in other parts of the world. While organizational research states that weight issues are a source of discrimination at every career stage, medical research says 95% of people who start weight loss programs come in at the same or a higher body fat level two years later. 

These statistics show that weight gain is more driven by environment and genetics as opposed to factors that people can control. Johnson’s research aims to look further at obesity to determine if it is more complex than organizational research states. Is the psychological aspect of body fat more predictive of someone’s work performance versus their actual body fat percentage?

The authors replicated studies across several samples in southeastern Louisiana, northern Europe, and a nationally representative U.S. sample to display the robustness and generalizability of this study’s surprising results. Ultimately, they concluded that objective body fat was not predictive of job performance, but subjective fatness significantly predicted it. In other words, how fat someone feels is a better predictor of job performance than how overweight someone is. Lastly, the authors discovered that accuracy doesn’t matter. Someone who is obese, but views themselves as thin, would not have their job performance affected.

In conclusion, Johnson suggests three important organizational outcomes from his study that could strengthen the relationship between organizations and their employees. First, there should be less emphasis on shedding pounds, which is virtually impossible long-term, and more on pursuing a psychologically healthy lifestyle. He also discovered that this outcome aligns with medical research surrounding the Health at Every Size Movement, which states that people dealing with weight issues should focus more on emotional and psychological health to experience better health outcomes.

Lastly, organizations spend a lot of money on wellness programs every year that include significant weight loss components that don’t yield significant outcomes. Organizations that shift their emphasis from weight loss programs to wellness programs that enable employees to develop a psychologically healthy outlook could improve health and work outcomes, creating better-performing employees.

Read more about Johnson’s study in the full article below:

FULL Article in Personnel Psychology


About the Rucks Department of Management

The Rucks Department of Management at LSU’s E. J. Ourso College of Business endeavors to prepare students for careers in fields such as international management, human resources, and strategic leadership. A generous donation by LSU alumnus William W. Rucks and his wife, Catherine, has aided the department in securing faculty who are repeatedly recognized for their research and has aided student-affiliated organizations in achieving top honors nationally. For more information, visit the Rucks Department of Management or call 225-578-6101.

Personnel Psychology

Personnel Psychology publishes psychological research centered around people at work. Articles span the full range of human resource management and organizational behavior topics, including job analysis, selection and recruiting, training and development, performance appraisal and feedback, compensation and rewards, careers, strategic human resource management, work design, global and cross-cultural issues, organizational climate, work attitudes and behaviors, motivation, teams, and leadership. Research conducted at multiple levels of analysis, including individual, team, and organizational levels, are welcome. Published articles include original empirical research, theory development, meta-analytic reviews, and narrative literature reviews.