According to the latest Department of Health statistics, nearly one in four UK adults are obese and research has shown that these individuals have greater health risks, meaning 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. This can lead to lower productivity levels and increased risk of injury if their job requires 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 this is generally not the case in smaller companies. Regardless of policy, 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.
Although current legislation allows for employees to be protected against 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 but 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. But 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 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 lunch time 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 like obesity directly with employees should not become an excuse to do nothing. There is much that employers can 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 an employment partner at law firm Shakespeares.