A European Court of Justice ruling on obesity means employers must review how they treat overweight staff, says Emmanuelle Ries
Following the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling last December that obesity can be considered a disability, employers need to review how they treat overweight staff.
The decision led to much comment on social media and many blogs voiced the opinion that obesity is a self-inflicted state and as such should not attract the protection of the law.
So, what exactly does the ECJ’s decision mean for employers?
Obesity may be a disability
Obesity in itself is not a disability. However, following the ruling, it is clear that it could be considered a disability if it caused physical, mental or psychological problems that impaired a person’s ability to participate in work (in cases of diabetes or mobility problems, for example).
The effects of obesity might make it more likely that a claimant has an impairment which has a substantial and long-term effect on his or her ability to carry out day-to day-activities.
No discriminatory treatment
Employers should review their policies as to how they treat overweight staff and should:
- Take care not to treat an obese employee’s circumstances as having less merit than other disabled employees.
- Consider whether or not any reasonable adjustments should be made. These might include the provision of bigger chairs and desks, or car parking spaces near the front door, for example.
- Be aware that these potential adjustments all bring with them the threat of employee relations issues from other members of the workforce who may feel they are being unfairly treated. The risk of harassment and bullying of an obese employee may be high and could well include managers who should receive guidance on dealing with an obese worker and handling any related issues.
- Take care not to discriminate in any recruitment, promotion, sickness absence or dismissal process.
Effects of obesity in the workplace
Research has shown that overweight individuals have greater health risks, and obesity is associated with substantially increased rates of absenteeism and presenteeism. Sleeping problems can lead to lower productivity and increased injury risks, particularly if employees drive or operate machinery. Obesity and associated health conditions may result in an employee not being able to do their job fully.
What can employers do?
Employers are encouraged to include healthy eating and exercise as part of an overall workplace wellness initiative. As part of this policy, managers may support workers who are actively trying to lose weight.
Businesses may wish to encourage:
- Exercise initiatives. Make it easier for employees to cycle to work by offering safe bike parking. Ask local gyms to offer discounted memberships to employees. Encourage employees to use pedometers to motivate themselves to walk more. Set a challenge to employees to take 10,000 steps every day, and create friendly competition to see who can walk the most steps in a week.
- Encourage proper lunch breaks. Persuade workers to take a full break, and offer exercises during the lunch hour.
- ‘Biggest Loser’ challenges. Set a challenge to lose weight within a period of time and support with a prize to the top three ‘losers’, or those who lose the largest percentage of their body weight in six weeks.
- Sponsor a sporting event. Organise a walk or cycle ride for charity.
The ECJ’s decision is an acknowledgment that obesity has become a societal issue and that the workplace has its part to play in tackling it. However, a systematic structural approach to obesity management needs to be put in place along with workplace education, dietary consultations and other standard approaches to lifestyle changes.
Society needs to address the ticking time bomb of obesity in much the same way as it tackled smoking – in order to ‘nudge’ people in directions that will improve their lives, without eliminating freedom of choice.
Emmanuelle Ries is a managing partner at ebl miller rosenfalck
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