Managing obese employees

Home Articles ADVICE & GUIDANCE Managing obese employees

The level of obesity in the UK has significantly increased over the years and we now live in an era where obesity is commonly accepted as being a norm amongst society.

It is therefore not surprising to hear that in December 2014, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that obesity can be classified as a disability in certain circumstances.

The definition of a disabled person is someone with a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term (12 months or longer) adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

It should be noted that recent ruling confirms that obesity in itself is not a disability, but if a person has long term impairment resulting from obesity, then this could fall within the definition of a disability. Therefore, somebody who is just obese, but does not have any apparent health effects is unlikely to be a disabled employee.

However, if somebody is obese and suffers from say for example, a heart condition which they have had for a few years, then they are likely to be considered to fall within the remit of a disabled employee.

So what do employers need to consider when dealing with obese employees with associated long term impairments? Here are a few of my top tips.

Health and Safety considerations.

Lee Churchill Health & Safety Consultant of Avensure states :

“Employers need to put in place special arrangements where risk assessment identifies this, to take account of obese workers and put appropriate arrangements in place where necessary.

Back problems can be contributed to by obesity, which leads to absences from work. Sleeping problems may be a result of obesity, causing accidents through loss of dexterity due to fatigue. It is plausible that obesity may make a job more difficult or, in extreme circumstances, not possible due to the difficulties this causes the individual. Workplace equipment would need to be re-designed to accommodate the individual – ladders, PPE, chairs, desks and space, etc.

Health problems such as diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory complaints, cancers, eyesight problems, cardiovascular disorders and sleep apnoea, strokes and infertility can effect the working life of the employee profoundly. There are also psychological impacts such as low self-esteem, social exclusion and depression which are often difficult to deal with due the stigma often attached.

Well-being being incorporated into the wider health and safety arrangements and the strategy of employers, including dietary advice and where possible provision of healthy meal options in such facilities as staff canteens and staff benefits such as gym membership, are key provisions employers can make to counter this issue in house and as part of the broader working society.”

Absence management

An obese employee with associated health problems is more likely to have time off work than a healthy employee. Employers must therefore ensure that their absence management policies are robust and that sickness absence is effectively managed to ensure that long term absences do not negatively impact your business and your other employees.

When dealing with absence, employers may need to consider obtaining a medical report from a medical professional (GP, Occupational Health Specialist, Consultant etc) in order to obtain a professional opinion in relation to an employee’s current prognosis and details of whether a return back to work is expected within the foreseeable future.

By following this and other subsequent processes, the option may be available in certain cases to terminate an employee’s contract of employment on the grounds of medical capability, even if they are deemed as being disabled. So it is not all doom and gloom!

Reasonable adjustments

As an employer, you are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments in certain situations. Managing a disabled employee is one of those situations.

So what would constitute a reasonable adjustment? The duty to make reasonable adjustments aims to make sure that, as far as is reasonable, a disabled worker has the same access to everything that is involved in doing and keeping a job as a non-disabled person. This may range from considering a request for flexible working, to providing specialist equipment (i.e chairs, larger desk space etc). An employer is only expected to make those adjustments that are reasonable in nature and what is reasonable for you to do depends, among other factors, on the size and nature of your organisation.

Each case should be considered on its own merits as what is deemed as being reasonable in one case, may not necessarily be the case in another. Unless adjustments are requested by an employee, and employer is also under a duty to consider these as part of a Health & Safety risk assessments or following an employee’s return from short or long term sickness absence.

Employee wellbeing

Following on from the Health & Safety comment above, this is something that employers should consider in order to promote a healthier workforce. We all know that a healthy workforce is a more productive and motivated workforce so by having provisions in place to encourage this, the long term benefits will come in time including reducing obesity and absence within the work place.


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