We had a number of queries recently from clients asking whether Obesity is classed as a disability.
Obviously we are aware that obesity is a critical issue in the UK at the moment and about a quarter of the adult population in the UK are clinically obese.
But is obesity a disability?
Under the Equality Act 2010, a person is considered to have a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment and it has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
In one recent case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled that obesity in itself was not a disability under the definition. But it did consider that an obese person may be more likely to come under the definition. For example, diabetes, depression and joint-pain—all associated with and potentially compounded by obesity – may be chronic impairments that have a substantial effect on an individual’s everyday life.
In Kaltoft v Municipality of Billung, Mr Kaltoft was employed as a childminder, taking care of children at his home. He was dismissed and he complained to the Danish court that the dismissal was motivated by his obesity. The ECJ held there is no general principle that discrimination was on the grounds of obesity.
However in the case of Bickerstaff v Butcher, it was unanimously decided that the claimant was disabled and upheld his claim of harassment. Mr Bickerstaff worked at Randox Laboratories in Co Antrim where he said he was harassed by colleagues, in particular by Mr Butcher, because of his weight.
In one instance, Mr Butcher had said that the claimant was “so fat he could hardly walk”. In another, the respondent said Mr Bickerstaff was “so fat he would hardly feel a knife being stuck into him”. The employment judge said it was satisfied that Mr Butcher had been “harassed for a reason which related to his disability, namely his morbid obesity condition”. It heard evidence of the claimant’s excessive body mass index (48.5), sleep apnoea and gout.
So what can you do as an employer?
It is crucial to work with the employee to look at reasonable adjustments that can be made to support them to do their job if the Occupational Health assessment suggests that they do have a potential disability due to their obesity. Adjustments could include different office equipment (chairs) or other supports to assist.
It is important to communicate with employees to discuss their individual situation and anything the company can do to support them, as well as making sure that the employee is able to do their job.
It is also important to ensure that you discuss health and wellness with all employees and you could look to offer gym membership, fruit, healthy food in the canteen, etc.