Understanding the impact of being overweight at work and how to manage the situation.
Published 22 May 2023
A new law in the US to protect employees from discrimination because of their weight has once again thrust a sensitive topic into the spotlight.
A controversial bill protecting overweight people from weight discrimination has been passed in New York City [1 cited 22.5.23]
The bill, which is set to be signed into law, would outlaw discrimination on the basis of a person’s ‘height or weight’ in sectors including employment.
Councilman Shaun Abreu, one of the bill's main sponsors, said he realised weight discrimination was a ‘silent burden’ after he was treated differently when he gained more than 40lbs during lockdown.
It certainly gives employers on this side of the Atlantic something to think about, especially after new research revealed Britain has an obesity crisis.
A recent report found he UK has the third highest obesity rate in Europe, behind only Malta and Turkey. Almost one in three adults are now classified as obese – an increase from one in 10 adults in 1970, which is a much bigger increase than seen in Germany, France and Italy [2 cited 22.5.23]
A study in 2018 revealed that more than four in five UK adults believe people with obesity are viewed negatively because of their weight and 62 per cent of Britons thought people are likely to discriminate against someone who is overweight [3 cited 22.5.23]
Whether an employee’s weight can be considered a disability and the individual suffer discrimination as a direct result of it has been at the centre of much debate and legal battles.
In February this year, an employment tribunal applied the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that if obesity has reached such a degree that it plainly hinders participation in professional life, then this can be a disability.
The tribunal found that a worker with a body mass index (BMI) of 48.5 was disabled [4 cited 22.5.23]
Obesity itself is not recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
However an employee may be protected against discrimination if their obesity meets the definition of a disability under the Act.
In accordance with the Act, a person is considered disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
If an employee’s weight means they meet this definition, the individual may be protected from discrimination in the workplace.
Each case will, of course, depend on the individual circumstances and the impact on the person's ability to carry out their daily activities.
There is a difference between an employee being overweight and obese.
Being overweight means having more body weight than is considered normal or healthy for a person’s age or build.
On the other hand, obesity is the condition of being obese, i.e. excess amount of body fat with a BMI of between 30 to 39.9. If it is over 40 it is in the severely obese range [5 cited 22.5.23]
Being overweight or obese is associated with numerous health risks and it can also have a negative impact on mental health, leading to low self-esteem, depression, and social isolation.
Here we take a look at how employers can help to ensure workers are not put at a disadvantage in the workplace as a result of their weight.
Is there anything an employer can do to support employees to live a healthy lifestyle?
Yes, it can implement health and well-being initiatives to support all employees and promote a healthy and inclusive working environment.
Creating a workplace that values diversity, regardless of appearance, helps to promote a culture of inclusivity and respect.
Education is always key, and providing information and initiatives that encourage healthy lifestyles, proper nutrition, and physical activity, can help.
Employers can offer opportunities to take part in physical activities by providing gym facilities, organising fitness challenges or promoting walking meetings that get employees out of the office.
Staff canteens and vending machines can offer healthy options and provide information on nutritious choices, and awareness campaigns can educate and encourage staff to make healthy food choices.
It is difficult for many employees to stick to a fitness regime and combine it with work and other personal commitments. Offering flexible working arrangements can present opportunities for workers to take part in physical activities during breaks.
An employee assistance program can also help by offering counselling or support for mental health, stress management and healthy lifestyle choices.
It is essential that reasonable adjustments are considered and made where possible, if an employee has a weight-related condition that can be considered a disability [6 cited 22.5.23]. Such adjustments can help the individual to overcome any related issues that may put them at a disadvantage in the workplace. It can also help to establish any support required, which can help with work-related matters and lifestyle choices.
Any initiative around health and well-being should always be handled with sensitivity, confidentiality and respect for employee privacy.
Engaging employees in the process and considering their input can also help ensure that support measures are relevant and effective.
What should an employer do if an employee is overweight and cannot do their job as a result of it?
If a member of staff is unable to perform their duties as required due to health-related issues, the situation should be handled in a reasonable and compassionate manner.
Communication and understanding are vital in such circumstances. Gaining an understanding of the particular challenges and limitations preventing the employee from performing as needed, is important.
Obtaining medical information and advice from a GP or via an occupational health assessment regarding support that may be needed, the capability of the employee in question and recommended adjustments will help to manage the situation.
An employee can be dismissed if they have a persistent or long-term illness, which makes it impossible for them to do their job. Any process that leads to such a dismissal should always be thorough and fair.
It is advisable that all employers seek expert advice whenever considering dismissing an employee who is physically unable to do their job, especially if the reason is weight and health related.
Some physically demanding jobs e.g. Military or emergency services, may have specific fitness standards that need to be met for operational reasons. They are generally based on the ability to perform essential duties rather than weight or appearance.
How should an employer respond if a worker complains about colleagues making upsetting weight-related comments?
It should be taken seriously and dealt with in accordance with any other type of grievance raised by an employee [7 cited 22.5.23]
If an employee is treated unfavourably for matters relating to their weight it can amount to bullying or harassment.
Address the complaint without delay, offer support to the employee affected and consider whether more needs to be done to promote respect and dignity, and to remind all employees of the organisation’s policies on bullying and harassment.
Best advice and practice for employers to support employees with their health and weight.
It needs a sensitive and proactive approach. Work to create an environment where everyone is treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their weight or appearance.
Do not just focus on weight, promote overall health and well-being including physical activity and mental well-being.
Implement initiatives or workshops on nutrition and healthy lifestyles, which can encourage employees in making positive health choices.
Actively address and prevent weight-related stigma and discrimination within the workplace. Develop and enforce policies that promote respect, tolerance, and equality.
Create an environment where staff are comfortable discussing their health concerns or challenges related to weight.
It can, admittedly, be difficult for any business to know what to do for the best. But if unsure, or there is a lack of resources to implement measures described, seek advice from health and well-being experts, HR professionals, or consultants to discover appropriate and practical initiatives.