How to tackle the sensitive issue of obesity in the workplace

Here, Nicola Mullineux gives legal and procedural advice on approaching the issue of obesity in your workforce.

If you follow the news, you may have seen articles recently regarding the police being asked to ‘cut down on bulge’, but obesity issues must be handled carefully. Employees who experience difficulties due to their weight are not explicitly protected from discrimination on those grounds, but may be protected under other legislation.

Staff with weight problems may be offered some protection under the Equality Act 2010, providing certain criteria are satisfied. Decided in the European Court of Justice in the case of a Danish childminder, it was concluded that obesity could be categorised as a disability if it hinders the individual’s ‘full and effective participation’ in their professional life.

What does this ruling mean?

This means that employees should not be treated unfairly or discriminated against due to their weight. Employers should not look into the cause of the employee’s condition, as whether it’s self-inflicted, or if it can improve or not, isn’t relevant. The only relevant factor is the effect it has on the employee’s ability to carry out their duties. A dismissal on the grounds of obesity alone is likely to be regarded as unfair. Instead dismissal must fall within one of the potentially fair reasons, such as:

  • Conduct
  • Capability
  • Redundancy
  • Breach of statutory duty

Obesity as a disability

In circumstances where obesity amounts to a disability, the onus is on the employer to meet their duty of ensuring any reasonable adjustments are made where a disabled employee is placed at a substantial disadvantage.

This may be a provision, criteria or practice such as:

  • Sickness absence trigger points
  • A physical obstacle at the employer’s premises, such as a lack of facilities for employees with disabilities

Remember that employees should not be subjected to unfavourable treatment, bullying or harassment in the workplace, and you have a responsibility to take action against such behaviour.

Best practice

As an employer committed to providing positive support to your workforce, you can take action to reduce the impact of obesity and improve the effectiveness of your business.

Firstly, you’ll need to reflect and analyse the effect that obesity is having on your business, then use this information to decide how to approach and improve it. You may also want to consider things like:

  • Improving the food available in workplace canteens or vending machines to reduce high calorie intake during work
  • Installing bike racks to encourage exercise
  • Providing helpful information and encouraging staff in their effort to lose weight.

By creating a working environment where staff feel supported and understood, everyone feels comfortable and included, which can subsequently result in improved performance and productivity.

Nicola Mullineux is a senior employment law expert at Peninsula Business Services.

Related: How to approach workplace obesity as a small business

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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