The European Court has ruled that obesity can be categorised as a disability should it impede on a person’s ability to participate in work on an equal basis to their colleagues.
Following a landmark decision by the European Court (CJEU) that could affect employment rights across Europe, a person suffering from obesity may now be recognised as disabled in the eyes of the law, and as such is protected against discrimination under the Equal Treatment Framework Ruling.
This ruling has come following the case of Karstan Kaltoft, a morbidly obese Danish child-minder who claimed that he was dismissed by Billund Council after 15 years of service due to his weight.
The Directive has been incorporated into UK legislation under the Equality Act 2010, which protects against direct and indirect discrimination because of, or arising from, disability. Prior to today’s ruling it was necessary for an obese employee to show that they had other impairments in order to be categorised as a disabled person; however, that is no longer longer the case. As an example, reduced mobility due solely to obesity may now be sufficient to constitute a disability in itself.
The court clarified that whilst obesity itself may not always be classed as a disability, any health issues that occur as a direct consequence of the obesity can be treated as a disability, regardless of the original causes of the obesity. As the court said, obesity may be considered a disability where “it hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.”
The legislation is binding for UK employers and means that businesses may now need to make reasonable adjustments to their workplaces in order to facilitate obese employees, such as providing larger chairs or special car parking spaces.
Employers should remain alert to employee health and workplace obstacles, and consider the following:
Is the employee visibly struggling at work or have they mentioned doing so? Prior to considering performance management consider possible reasons such as disability.
Has the employee had a period or periods of sick leave? It is good practice to hold return to work interviews to enquire further.
Has the employee requested adjustments to their work or working environment or are you aware of any such needs?
If making decisions about dismissal or redundancy, might the organisation’s standard practice or procedures disadvantage those who may now be considered disabled?
The ruling did not define a level of Body Mass Index (BMI) at which an obese person may be categorised as disabled, which is going to make identifying an employee’s disability difficult for a business to do. This in turn will make it harder to be sure whether they are meeting their responsibilities as an employer or not.