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Obesity and disability: look behind the labels

Are all obese workers ‘disabled’?

No. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has confirmed that just because a worker is obese does not necessarily mean they are disabled.

Can an obese worker be disabled?

Yes. Some impairments caused by obesity may mean that a worker is disabled. In the UK, a worker will be disabled if they have:

  • A physical or mental impairment;
  • Which has an adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities;
  • The adverse effect is substantial (i.e. more than minor or trivial); and
  • The adverse effect is long-term (i.e. has lasted, or is likely to last, 12 months or more, or for the rest of the person’s life).

The ECJ’s decision has not changed this but is a useful reminder that in determining whether or not someone is disabled (other than for conditions which are deemed to be disabilities, such as cancer and HIV), you should always consider the effect someone’s condition has on them, rather than simply the label of the condition itself.

So whilst many people suffer from stress and anxiety, for example, only some will be disabled: those falling within the definition above. Likewise, whilst some obese workers may be disabled, not all will.

Will workers over a certain BMI be disabled?

Not necessarily. The ECJ’s judgment makes no direct link between BMI and obesity – so it’s not the case that someone with a particular BMI will automatically be classed as disabled.

Which obesity-related impairments could amount to a disability?

There can be no hard and fast list and every case will depend on its own facts. However, if an obese worker suffers from, for example, reduced mobility, joint problems or depression they will be disabled if that impairment has a substantial, long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

What if the condition is self-inflicted?

The origin of a disability is irrelevant – it doesn’t matter whether or not a person has contributed to the onset of their condition.

What should we do if an obese worker is disabled?

If an obese worker is disabled they will of course be protected against discrimination and harassment, and you will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments if they are placed at a substantial disadvantage by a provision, criterion or practice, or physical feature of your premises.

Reasonable adjustments might include changing seating arrangements or improving accessibility to the office, but be careful not to make assumptions about workers’ needs, bearing in mind that obesity can be a sensitive subject.


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