26 August 2011 #Employment
Results of research published this week predict that obesity rates in the UK will have risen to 40% of the population by 2030.
Obese employees are generally unhealthier than their non obese counterparts and may have more instances sickness absence which can have a negative impact on a business. Recent Department of Health information estimates that almost 20 million working days a year are lost to obesity. Being overweight is also linked to sleeping difficulties which may lead to employees feeling lethargic and so being less productive.
Health and Safety regulations also require employers to assess risks to their staff and take reasonable steps to reduce them. Obese employees may be more at risk than other staff and employers should be careful to take this into account during workplace assessments, especially where heavy machinery is involved. This may result in an increased cost for employers.
So what can employers do to mitigate these impacts?
Prevention is better than cure and so employers should firstly try to encourage employees to make healthy choices. If you provide food to your staff, make sure that it is nutritious and where possible low in fat. Encouraging exercise, such as a cycle to work scheme can be of huge benefit. Benefits such as health cover can also be effective.
If they have an obese employee who is under performing, employers should take steps to identify whether the obesity is caused by an underlying illness, such as diabetes, before taking any action as if it is the employee may be protected under the disability discrimination provisions of the Equality Act. Similarly, if the employees obesity has led to impairments such as arthritis, asthma etc these impairments may themselves amount to a disability if they have lasted (or are expected to last) 12 months or more and have a substantial adverse effect on the employees ability to carry out day to day activities. This can be achieved by requesting the employee`s medical records or by referring the employee to Occupational Health. If your company does not have an occupational health provider Buddy can refer you to one so please contact us. At present there is no legally recognised form of discrimination against employees who are simply overweight.
Where the employee`s weight is affecting their ability to do their job, the employer should invite the employee to a meeting and advise them of the negative impact of their weight. If this does not produce any improvement, the employer should follow their capability procedure. If, despite being warned that their underperformance is putting them at risk of dismissal, the employee fails to take steps to improve (and where there is no underlying illness or resulting impairment which may attract discrimination protection) a capability dismissal should be fair. If the employee is suffering from an underlying illness the employer should be sure to make any reasonable adjustments prior to terminating employment.
Employers could also, in theory, argue "some other substantial reason" for dismissing an employee in a client-facing role where their appearance was affecting business performance; although, of course, this would need to be substantiated with tangible evidence and suitable alternative employment for that employee sought within the organisation first.
Obesity is a legal minefield for employers and we recommend that legal advice is sought before taking any action against overweight employees. Full Employmentbuddy members get an hour of free helpline advice and non members/free subscribers can contact our Employment Team.