Researchers have claimed that the UK is in danger of surpassing predictions which estimated that 50% of the nation would be obese by 2050. Employers are already facing the challenges of supporting a workforce with an ever increasing waistline and their concerns are set to intensify following the recent European Court of Justice decision that obesity can amount to a disability.

FOA, acting on behalf of Karsten Kaltoft v Kommunernes Landsforening, acting on behalf of the Municipality of Billund C-354/13

The ECJ held that a severely obese child minder had protection from discrimination on the basis that his obesity amounted to a disability. This means that, not only was he protected from detrimental treatment, but also that his employer was under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate his disability.

It is worth highlighting that a morbidly obese worker will not automatically be classed as disabled. Rather, the court reasoned that obesity may amount to a disability where its effect hinders the employee’s ability to take part fully in everyday professional life. In this case the child minder had a BMI of 54 throughout his employment. The ECJ declined to set a minimum BMI threshold, above which obesity would amount to a disability, but rather said that this would have to be decided on a case by case basis. This lack of clear cut-off makes it more difficult for employers to identify the point at which the additional legal protections for disabled workers will apply. However, given the rapidly growing levels of obesity throughout Europe, it will be more and more common for employees to be so obese that it either becomes a disability in itself, or causes medical complications that amount to a disability.

In light of this decision, employers may need to consider making reasonable adjustments where an employee within their team is severely obese. Examples of possible reasonable adjustments might include: making larger office furniture or special work equipment available, offering preferential parking arrangements, and considering requests for reduced hours or alternative working arrangements where an employee finds any of his or her duties particularly challenging.