Accommodating Obesity in the Workplace
In UK, obesity currently affects one in four adults and one in five children aged ten to eleven. This presents a number of challenges not only for the overall health of the population, but for employers who are responsible for the health and wellbeing of their workforce.
Obesity can lead to all manner of legal claims, including those related to disability discrimination and workplace bullying. To help create a corporate culture that reduces the likelihood of these problems developing into a formal claim, it is vital that organizations familiarise themselves with the legal and medical profile of obesity.
Is obesity a disability?
The status of obesity is the same in both domestic and European litigation – being obese itself is not considered a disability. The reason that obesity is so strongly associated with disability discrimination claims is that it can give rise to a multitude of other conditions, which can be classified as disabilities.
Unless a condition is a ‘deemed’ disability, such as cancer, under the Equality Act, a person is defined as having a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It is the effect of the impairment rather than the cause which is the deciding factor.
For example ‒ as in the case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing LTD (2013) ‒ Mr. Walker was found to suffer from related conditions including asthma, diabetes, anxiety, and depression, in addition to his obesity. Combined, these collateral problems had a profound negative impact on his working life, to an extent that he was ruled to be disabled.
While it is important to note that not all cases involving obesity result in this outcome, the NHS saw an 18% increase in the number of patients admitted to hospitals with obesity and related conditions in 2018. As the levels of obesity continue to rise, the likelihood of people experiencing concurrent problems which affect their ability to perform their working role increases correlatively.
Managing disability in the workplace
Employers have a statutory requirement to safeguard the physical and mental health of their employees. With regards to those classified as disabled, the employer is under a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments or modifications to the working environment, removing any substantial disadvantages that a disabled employee may be faced with.
Reasonable Adjustments. These may include providing parking spaces close to the office, offering flexible working hours or the possibility of working remotely and providing duties with reduced walking time. Modifications designed to accommodate obesity are usually cost-effective; their implementation can help to avert problems that may develop into more problematic, and costly, legal disputes.
However, in order for an employer to understand what reasonable adjustments need to be made, the first step is to understand the health of the workforce and/or employee, using a combination of wellness checks and specialist assessments.
HR Medical Specialist Assessment. Asking a business owner or line manager to effectively understand the requirements of an employee who is suffering from a complex health condition has inherent challenges. Even with the best intentions, managers may not necessarily have the experience and training required in order to identify what reasonable adjustments are required. The role of the HR Medical Specialist is to, therefore, work with both the employer and employee, assessing whether an individual has a disability, and what support or reasonable adjustments are required in order to help them return to or remain at work.
Wellness Checks. These simple tests assess an individual’s key health risks, allowing for the anticipation and prevention of any health problems, including those associated with developing obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease. This early intervention can help staff members identify any potential health risks, empowering them to take control of their own wellbeing before it impacts their performance at work. Concurrently, employers can use the information to help spot trends in the data, using the information to devise a range of wellbeing strategies that are uniquely designed for the requirements of the workforce.
To avoid circumstances that result in claims being leveled, it is imperative that organizations familiarise themselves with obesity as an employment law issue, and devise policies that accommodate affected employees. The modifications and adjustments needed may require substantial personalization in each case, but if the appropriate rigor is applied to the process, you can substantially reduce the likelihood of costly or damaging claims.