Managing Overweight Employees and the Cost of Obesity in the Workplace

Home ADVICE & GUIDANCE Managing Overweight Employees and the Cost of Obesity in the Workplace

The level of obesity in the UK has significantly increased over the years. We now live in an era where it is commonly accepted to be overweight, and employee obesity has risen.

Therefore, it is not surprising to hear that in December 2014, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that obesity got 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 their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

You should note that a recent ruling confirms that obesity in itself is not a disability. Still, if a person has a long-term impairment resulting from obesity, then this could fall within the definition of a disability. Therefore, somebody who is just overweight in the workplace but has no apparent health effects is unlikely to be a disabled employee.

However, suppose somebody suffering from obesity in the workplace has a heart condition that they have had for a few years. In that case, they are likely 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 on dealing with the cost of obesity in the workplace.

Health and Safety Considerations for Employee Obesity in the Workplace

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 employees and put appropriate arrangements in place where necessary.

Overweight employees can suffer back problems contributed to by obesity, leading to obese employee absence. Sleeping problems may result from weight issues, and accidents can result from a loss of dexterity due to fatigue. It is plausible that obesity at work 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 from overweight employees such as diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory complaints, cancers, eyesight problems, cardiovascular disorders, sleep apnoea, strokes, and infertility can profoundly affect the employee’s working life. Obesity and work performance are closely linked because of psychological impacts such as low self-esteem, social exclusion and depression, which are often challenging due to the stigma attached.

Obesity in office workers can be supported by incorporating well-being 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 the issue of obesity in the workplace in house and as part of the broader working society.”

Obese Employee Absenteeism Management

Obesity in the workplace statistics shows that obese employees with associated health problems are likelier to have time off work than healthy employees. Employers must therefore ensure that their absence management policies are robust and that sickness absence gets managed effectively to ensure that long-term obese employee absenteeism does not negatively impact your business and your other employees.

When dealing with any obesity and the workplace absences, employers may need to consider obtaining a medical report from a medical professional (GP, Occupational Health Specialist, Consultant etc.). To obtain a professional opinion concerning an overweight employee’s current prognosis and details of whether you can expect a return to work within the foreseeable future.

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

Reasonable Adjustments For Overweight Employees

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 ensure that, as far as is practical, a disabled worker has the same access to everything involved in doing and keeping a job as a non-disabled person. It 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 reasonable adjustments for obese employees and those considered disabled. What is reasonable for you to do depends, among other factors, on the size and nature of your organisation.

Each case needs to be considered on its own merits, as what is deemed reasonable in one case may not necessarily be the case in another. Unless an employee requests adjustments, an employer must consider these as part of a Health & Safety risk assessment or following an employee’s return from short or long-term sickness absence.

Ongoing Well-Being of Overweight Employees in the Workplace

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

Obesity and employment FAQs

Can I dismiss overweight employees for being too heavy?

You can’t dismiss overweight employees based on their size and being overweight in the workplace. But, when obesity and employment become an issue when obese employees cannot perform.

Can I ask an overweight employee to lose weight?

Any employer asking an overweight employee to lose weight could easily find themselves in hot water. Since the 2014 European Court of Justice ruling that obesity could be ruled as a disability when it affects an individual’s participation in a full and effective professional life, obese employees get protected by the Equality Act from receiving mistreatment at work. If you were to approach an overweight employee about losing weight, it would be considered discrimination, and you could face legal action being taken against you. their required work duties are to an agreed standard.

Are shift work and obesity linked?

Past studies have shown that shift workers are at a higher risk of health problems that include heart disease, digestive upsets, accidents caused by daytime sleepiness, and obesity. What was known as ‘social jetlag’ was higher in those employees that worked night shifts and led to a higher risk of obesity. Shift work and obesity are linked to poor eating habits and reduced and disrupted sleeping patterns.

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Elena Boura