Statistics show that over 60% of adults in the UK are obese and there is an increasing awareness of the impact that being overweight has on personal wellbeing and on the health of the nation generally. Obesity has reached a worrying level in recent years and, in 2010, research showed that children in the UK were spending double the amount on sugary products, snacks and treats as those living in the United States. The Government published a new policy on reducing obesity and improving diet on 25 March 2013 which highlights the extent of the issue and, in particular, its effect on the NHS which spends over £5 billion every year on weight-related health problems. However, it is not just the NHS which is affected by obesity-related issues: the Government also recognises that excess weight can make it more difficult for people to find and keep work - an implicit acknowledgement of the impact that obesity has on businesses.
In the recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision in Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd, the EAT found that the employee in question, who suffered from various conditions relating to his obesity, was protected by disability discrimination legislation. The employment judge held that the fact that there was no obvious medical cause for the claimant’s conditions, other than his obesity, was irrelevant to the question of whether he suffered a physical or mental impairment which brought him within the scope of the Equality Act 2010. This case confirms that obesity of itself will not constitute a disability for the purposes of the legislation but suggests that obesity may mean that it is more likely that an individual will suffer from impairments falling within the legal definition.
Employers will be familiar with the concept of making reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and the recent EAT decision confirms that the obligation to do so will apply even in cases where an employee’s medical condition stems from obesity. There may be instances where an employee is no longer able to carry out his/her role due to having gained weight and, irrespective of whether the condition amounts to a disability, employers should take care making a decision about continued employment. In a case in 2005, a postman was awarded £24,000 in compensation and was allowed to return to work for Royal Mail after being sacked for being too fat to deliver letters as the employer had not properly considered whether he could carry out lighter duties, illustrating the risks to employers in these scenarios.
Employers might want to consider what steps they can take, not just to deal with obesity-related issues, but to prevent them in the first place. Some medical conditions caused by obesity can affect attendance records, motivation and productivity levels amongst staff. This has prompted some companies to encourage exercise and healthy eating through a variety of initiatives such as cycle to work schemes, discounted gym membership and providing free fresh fruit at the office. With obesity seemingly on the rise, weight-related health problems are likely to increase and employers must be alert to the risk of disability discrimination claims if the correct procedures are not followed.