Is obesity really a disability in the workplace?


In December 2014 the UK press went into overdrive reporting on the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, ruling on the case of a male childminder in Denmark who claimed that he had been dismissed 4 years ago for being too fat.

The court ruled that if obesity could hinder “full and effective participation” at work then it could be deemed to be a disability. The outcome of this case is binding across the EU and is applicable in the UK.

So is obesity a disability?

The judges in the case highlighted that obesity in itself is not considered to be a disability. However, for employers it is now important that they take into account if an employee has (or had) a long-term impairment because of their obesity. If this was proven the case, then the employee would be protected by the disability legislation (Equality Act 2010).

This ruling will be a concern to employers across the UK. Yet reviewing the outcome of this particular case against the current legislation (Equality Act 2010), it is evident that there is effectively no change for employers.

What is not clear from this case is how obesity would be determined. As such, employers need to consider employees ‘obesity’ on a case by case basis, as they would do with any other protected characteristic. It will mean that employers must review the impact of the role and responsibilities on an obese employee, and make reasonable adjustments. This could include the provision of larger chairs or, if parking is provided, offering larger bays. In addition, it is important that employers protect employees from verbal harassment. This also includes discrimination as a consequence of stereotyping. Obesity can be a particularly sensitive subject and employers will have to take care not to make assumptions about the needs of an obese worker.

I can see from recent press coverage that this case is creating a lot of chatter and anxiety concerning how this will affect the workplace. This is understandable, yet what is important to remember is that this ruling does not change UK law. What this case has done is clarify that obesity itself is not a disability, but that the effects of obesity can be, and the fact that someone is obese is not enough to make them disabled.