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January 14, 2015

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Obesity as a disability: how will the EU court ruling affect the workplace?

By David Towlson

When it comes to health, some people can feel powerless, trapped in a cycle that seems impossible to change. We are told that more people are overweight, and we routinely read and hear inflated terms in the media – morbidly obese, super obese – when it just used to be obese. We read of a time bomb and the health services struggling under the weight of it all.

It’s easy to get into thinking that obesity is entirely self-inflicted. But being overweight is complicated. There is a behavioural component (in most cases) but there’s much to do with the changing nature of work (sedentary), motivation, advertising, and the composition and pricing of modern foods that can make it hard to avoid for ordinary mortals.

And that brings me to the recent ruling by the European Court. It reportedly suggests (reportedly, because no-one can be bothered to actually read the ramblings) that being overweight may be treated as a disability. There has been much made of this. I can see already someone devising overweight policies, pre-emptive adjustment of the workplace for overweight people, obesity audits, risk assessments for obese people, all for fear of experiencing accusations of discrimination. But, on closer examination, they are not saying that being obese is in itself a disability. Instead it is the complications that often come with it – mobility, diabetes etc. When viewed in that light, it is not at all surprising.

Bringing in sensible workplace adjustments in such cases may well be appropriate, but I think only for long-term health issues where other interventions are unrealistic. After all, an employer owes a duty of care to each individual rather than everyone in general. Hence, we take account of vulnerable groups in risk assessments, have specific fire evacuation plans for disabled employees etc.

But, most disabilities that we think of are long-term issues, that have a significant (and possibly permanent) effect on quality of life. Granted that some obesity cases may be genetic or rare disease related. But most will have a significant behavioural component. We tend to treat issues very differently when employee behaviour has a very significant impact on the condition. We naturally want to intervene to break the cycle to improve their long-term health and quality of life, for example with alcohol or drug dependency.

I therefore don’t think we want to get into general workplace adjustments for obesity where lifestyle interventions would be more appropriate. That would be defeatist and not at all in the interests of most overweight people. In such cases, they don’t need to be told, “just carry on getting overweight and we’ll keep adjusting the workplace”; they need help and motivation to lose weight. Indeed, isn’t this what health and wellbeing programmes are all about?

David Towlson is director of training and quality at RRC Training.

Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing

Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.

This free director’s briefing contains:

  • Key points;
  • Recommendations for employers;
  • Case law;
  • Legal duties.
Barbour EHS

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