A European court case about a Danish childminder who claims he was dismissed due to his weight could have lasting implications on the way obesity is classified and treated in the workplace.
The Advocate General of the European Court has indicated that obesity in its own right could be treated as a disability if it reaches the stage whereby it “plainly hinders participation in professional life”. The statement was made as the European Court considers the ongoing case of Karstan Kaltoft, a morbidly obese Danish childminder who is claiming that he was dismissed by Billund Council after 15 years of employment due to his weight.
Mr Kaltoft, with a reported body mass index (BMI) of 54, is arguing that morbid obesity is a disability in itself. Under the UK’s Equality Act 2010, severely obese employees have to show that they have other impairments (related or otherwise) in order to be regarded as disabled. Should the AG’s opinion be upheld by the court then European employers would need to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace in order to facilitate obese workers.
According to the NHS “around one in every four adults and around one in every five children aged 10 to 11 in the UK” are estimated to be clinically overweight, which the WHO classifies as having a BMI of 25 and upwards, and it’s a problem that’s set to grow – a report earlier this year made headlines by claiming earlier estimates that half the UK population will be obese by 2050 severely underestimated the problem.
If Mr Kaltoft’s case is successful it could cause significant costs for UK employers as they may be required to make adjustments to their workplaces, such as providing parking spaces closer to the place of employment, or making additional considerations for overweight employees who may not be able to use stairwells. It could also lead to awkward conversations between managers and employees about the employee’s weight, particularly if BMI is used as a cut-off point between ‘overweight’ and ‘disabled’.
The easiest way to prepare for the possible legislation is to be practicing good management already, and considering your employees own personal needs. Danny Clarke, occupational health manager at business support expert ELAS stated to HR Magazine, “Different people bring different things to the table in any workplace, and discriminating against certain groups is damaging to a company and its growth.”
It’s worth noting that whilst the AG’s statement may very well be indicative of the European Court’s position it is only an advisory opinion and is not binding. However the ruling would be in line with the EU’s stance on disability, which is based on capability as opposed to cause.