How does EU ruling on workplace obesity affect bosses?
An opinion from Europe’s central court has advised that obesity should be regarded as a disability. A specialist employment lawyer provides some thoughts on what this means for managers who may be concerned about some members of staff
Vanessa Di Cuffa
Following last week’s advice from the Advocate General at Europe’s Court of Justice that EU lawmakers should classify severe obesity as a disability, employers may be left wondering how to tackle the issue.
According to the latest Department of Health statistics, almost one in four UK adults is obese. Research has shown that those individuals have greater health risks, which means they are more likely to take short- or long-term absences. Obesity has also been linked to an increased risk of bullying and discrimination in the workplace, and sleeping problems brought on by the condition can leave employees feeling tired. That can lead to lower levels of productivity and increased injury risks, particularly if their jobs require them to drive or operate machinery. In some circumstances, obesity combined with an associated health condition may result in an employee not being able to do their job fully.
Some larger workplaces have a wellbeing policy and promote a healthy work-life balance – but generally, smaller businesses may not be quite up to speed. As part of this, managers may wish to extend support to workers who are actively trying to reduce their weight. However, in some cases employers are concerned that intervening in this way could leave them exposed to potential discrimination claims in the future.
The Advocate General has made the right decision. Although current legislation allows for employees to be protected from other forms of discrimination, the Court has declared that obesity itself is not a prohibited ground of discrimination.
Severely obese staff can still seek for suitable workplace provisions to be made under associated conditions such as diabetes, respiratory problems or mobility impairment. However, while the Advocate General has now confirmed that obese people – those with a body-mass index (BMI) of more than 40 – may meet the definition of disability, the obesity has to be severe enough to hinder their professional life.
Employers are right to recognise that obesity is an important business issue and do what they can to help workers to take steps to improve their health and wellbeing. There is actually a lot that employers can do, such as encouraging workers to get out and about at lunchtime and take time to eat properly. They can also stop buying sugary treats for the office like biscuits, chocolate and donuts. Offering cafeteria-style benefits such as subsidised gym membership or even hosting a weight-loss provider in the office can help to encourage attendance.
In reality this judgement means very little will change for employers. They should continue to promote healthy lifestyles and extend support to workers who are actively trying to reduce their weight. The Advocate General’s advice – that only those with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40 may be classed as disabled – may make the case for legislative support for those whose body weight is such that it genuinely hinders their ability to work.
The risks associated with addressing sensitive issues such as obesity head-on with employees should not become an excuse to do nothing. There is much that employers can still do to provide support in this area and a healthy workforce increases productivity and reduces costs.
The EU is likely to move forward with enshrining this into law as soon as possible, whilst employers must continue to, or start, providing appropriate support to staff with obesity issues at any level.
Vanessa Di Cuffa is employment partner at law firm Shakespeares
For more on these issues, read this CMI blog on workplace diversity.