Is obesity a disability?

Obesity in the UK is a growing epidemic. The UK is the tenth fattest country in the world and one of the fattest in Europe with levels of obesity trebling in the last 30 years. Whilst shocking, although perhaps not unsurprising, it is believed that by 2050 half of the population of the UK will be overweight.

Therefore it is no wonder that the press and media in recent times have repeatedly reported on the socio-economic implications of obesity. This is in spite of the debates held regarding the general attitudes towards obese people and conflicting opinions as to whether they should receive different or ‘special’ treatment to those who are not obese.

But how does obesity affect employment and employment prospects…

It is understood from research commissioned in the UK that obese people are typically the victims of stereotyping. Some employers assume them to be emotionally impaired, socially handicapped and possessing negative personality traits. This is despite the fact that obese workers take more days off sick per year than their slimmer colleagues.

At present The Equality Act 2010 is the primary piece of legislation that outlaws discrimination. However, it only prohibits discrimination in relation to the ‘protected characteristics’ which are sex, maternity and pregnancy, gender reassignment, disability, race, religion or belief, marital or civil partnership status, age and sexual orientation.

The list of protected characteristics does not include obesity or being overweight. Therefore, in order to claim discrimination, the obese or overweight person must show that they are disabled. However, in the recent case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Limited [2013] the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) confirmed that obesity in itself is not a disability for the purposes of proving disability discrimination.

In this case, Mr Walker weighed 21.5 stone and suffered with knee problems, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome, bowel and stomach complaints, dyslexia, a chronic cough, hearing loss, anxiety, depression, chemical sensitivity, fungal infections, eye problems, carpal tunnel and joint pains. No physical or mental cause for the impairments could be identified but it was agreed that they were exacerbated by his obesity.

The EAT held that Mr Walker was disabled. The EAT stressed that the focus should not be on what the cause of an impairment is. Specifically it is not necessary to point to a pathological, underlying cause (or causes) of the worker’s various impairments, instead it is the impairments and their effects that must be considered. The EAT went on to state that obesity is not in itself a “disability” for discrimination law purposes. However, it may make it more likely that an obese or overweight worker has impairments sufficient to bring him or her within the legal definition of disability.

How does this affect Employers?

Employers should bear in mind that whilst obesity on its own is not legally classed as a disability, it may cause symptoms or exacerbate existing problems to an extent that renders the worker disabled under the law.

This means that employers may need to comply with their obligations under the Equality act 2010, such as make reasonable adjustments, even when the worker’s impairment comes about as a result of being obese or overweight.

An employer should also consider that obesity may be caused by an underlying medical condition which in itself could amount to a disability.

Consequently, employers should be careful not to simply dismiss a worker who is no longer able to carry out his or her role as a result of being obese or overweight. Proper consideration should be given to the situation alongside consultation with the worker and obtaining a medical opinion which could also include advice on whether reasonable adjustments should and could be made. This will help ensure that the worker is treated as fairly and reasonably as possible and reduce the risk of disability discrimination claims.

The Future…

Perhaps it is only a matter of time that the UK will follow the lead of the US and extend the definition of legal disability to include obesity or expressly list obesity as a protected characteristic in its own right. Only time will tell.

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