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Obesity - a huge workplace issue

Statistics indicate that obesity is a 21st century health epidemic. In 1980, 7% of adults in the UK were regarded as obese. Now it is nearer 25% (1 in…

Statistics indicate that obesity is a 21st century health epidemic. In 1980, 7% of adults in the UK were regarded as obese. Now it is nearer 25% (1 in 4).

The impact on workplaces of this epidemic is staggering - 18 million sick days lost though obesity at an estimated cost of £3.7 billion (DWP figures).

A survey involving London Underground workers indicates that an obese employee is likely to take four days per annum more sick leave then an employee who is not obese.   Based on a national average this is about double the sickness.

An increasing number of employers have developed strategies to deal with the other “21st century” occupational health epidemic (stress). Is it now time to concentrate more on the issue of weight and physical health? Given that a person’s weight is down to issues of lifestyle choice, should it be any business of the employer?

It appears that weight is an issue from the outset of an employment relationship. Occasionally employers make clear that applicants above a certain Body Mass Index (“BMI”) will not be successful although the publicity from such an approach tends to be negative (for example in 2008, the Northern Ireland based bus company, Translink, required applicants to have a BMI of 33 or less).

However many employers [1] are likely, consciously or subconsciously, to mark down an application on the basis of weight.  Unless an applicant’s weight was a factor in a medical condition which was recognised as a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, is there anything to prevent an employer from doing this? Probably not. There are some indications that obesity is more prevalent in middle and older age and so it may be that an age discrimination claim could arise from this, but this is speculative and, to our knowledge, untried.

Other employers are adopting a more positive approach, at least as far as their existing workforces are concerned.  The Faculty of Public Health has a guide to creating a healthy workplace and key recommendations in here include encouraging employees towards physical activity and healthy eating. It is a line that not all employees will welcome but many will and it becomes increasingly clear that there is a huge association between the physical and mental wellbeing of a workforce and its effectiveness.

Mark Leach, Partner, mark.leach@weightmans.com