In December 2014, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) made the landmark decision in the case of Kaltoft v Municipality of Billund (Kaltaft) that obesity can fall within the definition of a disability in certain circumstances.
Following that decision, a UK employment tribunal has become the first to consider obesity as a disability following the decision in Kaltaft. In the case of Bickerstff v Butcher (Bickerstaff), The Northern Ireland Industrial Tribunal unanimously decided that the claimant in the case was disabled and upheld his claim of harassment.
Coincidentally, Prime Minster David Cameron has proposed to cut the benefits for those who are unable to work because they are overweight or suffering addiction problems.
Obesity a disability?
It’s no surprise that the case for obesity being classified as a disability has been growing for some time now across the world. In the UK alone, almost two thirds of the population can be classified as obese and more people in the UK in 2013/14 than at any other time in the last thirty years. With this figure only set to increase over the coming years, more and more attention is being drawn to how obesity not only affects individuals but also how it adversely affects both businesses and institutions.
In the EU
In Kaltoft, the ECJ was asked to consider the case of a Danish male who says he was sacked from his child-minding job for being too fat. The ECJ concluded that if obesity could hinder ‘full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers’, then it could be classed as a disability.
In the UK
The Bickerstaff case concerned the former employee of a health care firm who argued that he had been discriminated against because of his weight. The claimant argued that he was subject harassment by his colleagues because of his weight.
The sustained harassment had left the claimant in a distressed state, leading him to go on long term sick leave whilst feeling unable to return to work. The claimant left the company 9 months later.
The tribunal agreed he was disabled and his claim of harassment was upheld.
What will the effects be?
The ECJ ruling will be of great interest to employers across Europe. Whilst the ECJ judgement makes no statements regarding the qualification of an obese person, the strength behind the ruling lies in the premise that if an individual’s weight hinders their work performance, disability protection could be granted. As can be seen in the Bickerstaff decision, domestic tribunals are likely to rely on the Kaltoft decision when considering cases being bought before them concerning disability discrimination on the grounds of obesity.
The Equality Act 2010 imposes on employers a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help disabled employees. Going forward, employers will need to consider making reasonable adjustments which may include providing larger chairs, larger car parking spaces and increased awareness of the risk of workplace bullying.
The implications do not stop there. Outside of employment, service providers (including shops, cinemas and restaurants) will have to consider taking reasonable measures to cater for obese customers and may involve things such as special seating arrangements.
The key concept here is that adjustments must be ‘reasonable’. For example, whilst it may be expected that a large restaurant set aside a seating area for obese customers, it may not be expected from a small café. This would be matter for the courts to determine in the event of a claim.
If your business needs advice regarding obesity in the workplace, or on any other HR issues, you can rely on the Alcumus team of qualified HR professionals to assist and help you through the issue, regardless of how challenging it may be.
Please note this article is for information only and does not constitute advice. To ensure you follow best practice (and, if applicable, do not compromise your insurance), you should contact the Alcumus HR Consultancy team before embarking on any of the views given above.