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Obesity in the workplace

06 August 2013

UK adult obesity rates have risen substantially in recent years. While the effects of this are primarily borne by the NHS, a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case demonstrates that it is not just health professionals who need to be aware of issues arising from the country’s expanding waistlines.

In Walker v SITA Information Network Computing Limited, the EAT held that there is potential protection under disability discrimination legislation depending upon how the obesity-related symptoms impair the individual’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

Mr Walker weighed over 20 stone and brought a discrimination claim on the grounds of disability. He suffered from a plethora of ailments related to his obesity, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic fatigue syndrome. Although the EAT did not find in his favour, there were several interesting points raised in the judgment.

It held that the original employment tribunal (ET) should have asked itself whether Mr Walker had impairment; was it physical or mental; did it substantially impact on his ability to carry out everyday tasks? Underlying all of this was that it is the effect of the impairment which is crucial and not its cause. The EAT said that, of itself, obesity did not constitute a disability but it may make it more likely that a person qualifies as disabled as a result of the health problems stemming from being overweight.

This case demonstrates the rapidly evolving nature of employment law. Previously, conditions such as stress and depression were not given the same level of protection as physical disabilities, something now unthinkable under the Equality Act.

Although the case does not mean overweight employees have automatic recourse to equality legislation, employers should be aware that the days of fat jokes being cracked in the kitchen are probably a thing of the past.

Jenny works in our employment law team. She helps clients with the full range of employment related matters including TUPE, defending tribunal proceedings, contractual matters and general employee relations and HR work. She has wide experience working for SMEs, owner-managed businesses and organisations employing in excess of 1,500 staff across the UK.

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Jenny Hawrot LLB (Hons)
Senior associate, solicitor
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