How to approach workplace obesity as a small business

Kate Russell, managing director of Russell HR Consulting, discusses the health and safety issues surrounding the weight of employees.

Last month the question of the nation’s expanding waistlines came back under scrutiny. Salford Council hit the headlines when it emerged that it is trying to address local childhood obesity problems and one route it is considering is the prohibition of the sale of hot food from retail outlets close to schools before 5pm.

It seems draconian, but unless we are to deteriorate into comprehensive obesity and associated ill-health problems, something needs to be done. Whether this is the right thing is more debatable. It is a single strand of activity. There’s plenty more that we can do. Our increasing obesity has been on the radar for many years. Far from being recognised and reducing, we’re going the other way. A European Commission report suggests that the UK has the greatest number of overweight citizens in Europe. Half of adults are overweight, some so seriously as to be considered clinically obese. This trend presents serious risks to a healthy future for the UK.

We can’t assume that everyone who is overweight is unhealthy or going to fall victim to ill health, any more than we can assume that slender equals healthy (there are plenty of skinny people with incredibly unhealthy habits). However, obesity does increase the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary-heart diseases and certain cancers quite significantly. Many people who are seriously overweight also suffer psychological problems.

Discrimination on the basis of weight

Social trends inevitably hit the workplace too. Many obese people say that they find it harder to get or keep a job because of their size and their perceived or actual health issues. Can you refuse to appoint someone because of his weight or tell someone to lose weight without discriminating?

Each case turns on its own facts and you may well be able to refuse to appoint someone who is overweight and can’t do the job in consequence. Explore matters properly before reaching a conclusion about capability and don’t make assumptions. Being overweight is not automatically a disability. But if the sufferer develops a condition which is capable of being a disability, then he may be regarded as disabled. Since clinically obese people may well suffer physical or mental impairments as a result of their weight, they may well be found to have a disability. A recent case (Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd) concluded that it is only necessary to establish ‘an impairment’ and its effect, but not its cause. Mr Walker weighed 21.5 stones. He suffered from 16 medical conditions compounded by obesity. Medical evidence was given which concluded Mr Walker had a permanent chronic condition which affected his daily living. No single cause was identified for the medical problems he was experiencing, but it was recognised that Mr Walker’s emotions played a significant part.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal accepted that Mr Walker suffered from a number of medical issues, causing major problems in his day-to-day life. They did not have a single recognisable cause. The court said that the key question in a case like this is: does the person have an impairment? In answer, it was clear that Mr Walker did. By any reckoning he was substantially impaired and had been for a long time. The court said that there could be no other conclusion other he was disabled.

There is an important message for employers here. The court did not say that the condition of obesity itself means that a person is disabled but commented that it may, depending on the evidence, make it more likely that someone comes within the definition of disability. If there is a disability, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to support the employee.

Related: Third of UK office workers don’t get enough exercise, study finds

There are some circumstances where if an employee is grossly overweight (s)he cannot physically or safely do the job. One example is the transport industry. When prospective applicants come in for interview as a driver the first test is can they actually fit in the cab and reach the pedals? There have been a number of cases where the applicant is simply too fat to fit behind the wheel. There is nothing to be done but to say that we will welcome his application if he takes the decision to lose weight and return to us when he has done so. Drivers’ seats are usually adjustable but have a maximum load-bearing capacity. If an obese driver exceeds that weight, there is a risk that the seat will break; in turn that could lead to a loss of control and a possible fatal accident.

Responsibilities towards obese staff

Aside from making reasonable adjustments, in the case of a disability, what responsibility should employers have to staff who are obese? Make the working environment as healthy as possible and lead healthy living campaigns. Provide facilities to encourage healthy eating and drinking plenty of water.

We’re a small business, but when we moved office recently I insisted we have a shower at work so if anyone wants to run or cycle to work, they can do so. We have herbal and fruit teas available as well as the usual tea and coffee. We have a fridge to keep food brought from home safe (rather than buying McDonald’s or other less healthy options) and I insist that staff take time away from their workstations to eat lunch and have a break.

Encourage exercise. Many of our clients link exercise with fundraising. They make it a bit competitive and a bit of fun – for example, doing a challenging cycle ride for charity. If people have a goal to work towards and are working towards that goal with other people, they’re more likely to reach it. And having reached it by acquiring new habits of diet and exercise, they’re less likely to go back to earlier, perhaps less healthier habits.

In the case of the bus company, Stagecoach, it took a decision to discuss the issue with their unions and by agreement introduced a range of measures to help employees who were overweight. Drivers who exceeded the load-bearing capacity of the seat were taken off driving duties while they remained above that weight. They were not required to diet or exercise but encouragement to do so was given. Many drivers took up the challenge and there have been some remarkable successes. One driver who had been massively overweight all his life found it to be a life changing experience. He couldn’t believe how much better he felt – and being able to do simple things like walk a flight of stairs without being out of breath felt liberating.

Being obese isn’t much fun for those who are in that state and it is a ticking time-bomb for the health and wealth of the UK. Employers can and should encourage healthier living. It’s simply good business to do so.

Kate Russell

Kate Russell

Kate Russell is founder of Russell HR Consulting.

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