Is Obesity in the Workplace your Responsibility?

Home ADVICE & GUIDANCE Is Obesity in the Workplace your Responsibility?
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Yes and no – Whilst you do not have to ensure your employees lead a healthy lifestyle in their own time, you must ensure their size, weight and health does not affect their ability to work safely.

Public Health England revealed that in 2015, 62.9% of adults were overweight with 26.9% of adults obese. More concerning however is that by 2050 obesity is predicted to affect 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and 25% of children.

The health risks related to obesity are well publicised. It can lead to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes and cancer as well as many other health conditions.

There are some underlying health issues that can occasionally contribute to weight gain. However, obesity is generally caused by consuming more calories – particularly those in fatty and sugary foods – than are burnt off through physical activity.

It is an increasingly common problem because for many people modern living involves eating excessive amounts of cheap, high-calorie food and spending a lot of time sitting down at desks, on sofas or in cars limiting the burning of calories.

So how responsible are employers for obesity?

So far there has been no legal case in the UK where an employee has successfully claimed against an employer for their obesity  being caused by work.  However, there are significant workplace costs associated with obesity; for an organisation employing 1000 people, this could equate to more than £126,000 a year in lost productivity due to a range of health issues.

Whilst you do not have an obligation to ensure that employees enjoy a healthy lifestyle in their own time, it would be beneficial for work environments to encourage and support awareness and improvement of the health and well being of employees from a moral perspective.

This includes:

  • Ensuring healthy food is available if you provide fare to employees through facilities such as canteens or vending machines.
  • Arranging work events and parties that involve low impact exercise or healthy eating rather than high calorie meals in restaurants or consuming alcohol.
  • Encouraging employees to move around, take regular rest breaks and facilitating physical activity in general. This can be supported through workplace design and planning the duties and activities of staff to address sedentary work where possible.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states employers must, so far as reasonably practical, protect the health, safety and welfare of employees. Employers must consider the safety implications of overweight employees and ensure that that they can still carry out their role safely for themselves and others who could be effected in the event this is compromised.

For example, an employee may have mobility issues when using stairs or walking. As with any other employees who have mobility issues you must ensure they can safely evacuate in an emergency, you may need to consider a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) for them.

Work equipment must be suitable for the employees using it e.g. can employees safely use machinery? Can they reach emergency stops or alarms? Are office chairs, step ladders, work equipment etc, suitable for the dimensions of the individual and their physical capabilities?

Personal protective equipment must be fit for purpose too; it must fit larger employees and they must be able to use it correctly, with its intended protective purpose not compromised.

Obese employees may also suffer from other health and conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders or breathing difficulties. You must ensure that those conditions are not exacerbated by their activities they carry out.  Associated sleep problems could cause fatigue and impact on alertness, this may pose a potential danger for employees who drive or operate machinery for example.

Essentially as with all other employees, individual factors must be considered. Regardless of the size or health of anyone in your work place you must ensure they can work without risk to their health and safety and arrangements must facilitate this.

Whilst it is good to encourage healthy lifestyles in the workplace, employers should ensure that this is part of a strategy that applies to all staff and that overweight employees are not made to feel stigmatised, embarrassed, victimised or discriminated against. Employers may want to consider ongoing training to combat prejudice and discrimination against obese people in the workplace and factor equality and diversity awareness training into your arrangements also. A means to support employees as an aspect of employer arrangements with any of the issues mentioned would be through an Employee Assist Program , which provides qualified, competent advice, counselling and support to assist the well being of staff

For more information about managing obesity, staff welfare and well being in the workplace, Online E-learning Awareness Courses and Avensure Zest Employee Assist Support Program , please contact the Avensure advice line on 0330 100 8704.

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Elena Boura