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Obesity in the Workplace

30 May 2019

Our children are the future workforce and so the recent findings by a clinical nutritionist at the university of Nottingham about childhood obesity are a concern employers cannot ignore.  Pam Loch and Bruce Jenner explore the issue, and the implications for employers in this article first published by HR Director.

The research identified that more than 50% of parents fail to recognise that their children may be seriously overweight – and many health professionals are failing to do so too. With 25% of the UK population currently classified as obese, a significant proportion of the future workforce could require adaptations to their working environments.

It is not, however, a new challenge for employers. The European Court of Justice considered whether obesity should be classified as a disability as early as 2014. A Danish childminder, Mr Kaltfoft brought a discrimination case against his employer, claiming he was dismissed because he was obese, and his obesity was a disability.

The Advocat General in this case stated that whilst obesity in itself is “insufficient to fulfil the criteria in the Court’s case-law on ‘disability’”, if it “plainly hinders full participation in professional life on an equal footing with other employees due to the physical and/or psychological limitations that it entails, then it can be considered to be a disability”. As a result, it is up to national courts to decide in each case.

Employers also need to consider how their policies and procedures can help support obese employees and reduce the risk of discrimination occurring. Although obesity is not yet a protected characteristic under UK legislation, employers could choose to expressly reference obesity as a characteristic they wish to protect under their Equality and Diversity policy.

An Anti-harassment and Bullying policy could include specific references to obesity and the language and behaviour you expect from staff towards obese colleagues. Social media policies should also include examples of how to behave and not use specific language about obese employees.

All staff should be provided with training on Diversity and Inclusion. This could be extended to cover issues around obesity so people are aware of how their behaviour and language could lead to claims of harassment and discrimination.

Devising an obesity management plan would be the most beneficial solution employers could put in place. As well as practical steps, such as a plan to evacuate employees with mobility issues in an emergency, this plan may look at workplace design, healthy food options in the canteen and other general wellbeing initiatives. Employers can use this as an opportunity to engage with staff through a staff survey to find out what other options they would welcome.

Employers can also help employees take proactive steps to manage their health before it becomes an issue by providing Wellness Checks. These checks can identify signs of conditions such as diabetes allowing employees to make changes which reduce their health risk. This is obviously of benefit to the employee, but employers benefit from a healthier workforce and a lower risk of disabilities becoming an issue they need to manage.

Whatever additional measures you choose to implement, having an awareness of obesity as an employment law issue will enable employers to be forearmed to deal with obese employees should the need arise. Being aware and taking practical steps to ensure your processes and policies are up to date and effectively implemented as a starting point should help employers prevent claims being raised and provide the foundation upon which to successfully defend them.

For advice and guidance on managing obesity in the workplace, and protecting your business from the risk of claims against you,  get in touch with our experts today.

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