Fat is a workplace issue

An EU ruling that obesity may be considered a disability has implications for employers

Obesity doesn't just affect individuals. It hurts companies too. A number of studies have shown that overweight workers are less productive, more likely to get injured and usually need longer rest breaks than other staff.

That's not all. A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that obesity can, in some instances, constitute a disability means employers may have to start treating overweight staff differently. Some organisations warn this will lead not only to increased costs for businesses, but could also result in increased resentment from co-workers.

At the very least, companies will be under additional pressure to introduce effective health and wellbeing workplace initiatives to help employees fight the fat.

The European Court ruling, which was announced in December, came about after a Danish childminder named Karsten Kaltoft brought a case claiming he had been sacked because of his weight.


The court, whose laws are binding throughout EU member states, ruled that obesity could be considered a disability in situations where it “hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers”.

After the judgement, Tam Fry, a spokesman for the National Obesity Foundation in Britain, said: "This has opened a can of worms for all employers. They will be required to make adjustments to their furniture and doors and whatever is needed for very large people. I believe it will also cause friction in the workplace between obese people and other workers."

The legal position for obese employees has obviously been strengthened by the court’s decision and, while challenges are expected to be made against the ruling, it leaves employers in a tight spot.

Widespread changes

“In assessing whether an employee’s obesity amounts to a disability that requires the employer to provide reasonable accommodation for him or her, the employer must comply with its obligations to the employee.

"At the same time, the employer must also guard against an overprotective or unwelcome intervention that the employee may feel is unwarranted or may even believe amounts to bullying or harassment in the performance of his or her duties," said Anne Lyne, an associate at Hayes Solicitors.

Ms Lyne said it was possible that obese workers may look for widespread changes to be made to allow them to participate fully in the workplace.

“The decision of the European Court may increase awareness amongst employees of the possible protections and accommodations that are available to an employee who is experiencing limitations in his or her work as a result of a disability and result in a request for changes being made,” she said.

It might seem as though this is a side issue that will affect only a small number of companies. Think again. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), global obesity levels have more than doubled since 1980.

A study published by consultancy firm McKinsey revealed that the global cost of obesity outweighs that of alcoholism, drug use or road accidents and is considered one of the top three global social burdens.

The cost of obesity is estimated at $2 trillion – equivalent to 2.8 per cent of the world’s economic output. According to McKinsey, more than 2.1 billion people, or nearly 30 per cent of the global population, are overweight or obese.

Meanwhile, studies conducted in Ireland show that two out of three Irish adults, and one in four primary schoolchildren, are overweight or obese.

While personal responsibility is obviously important in terms of fighting obesity, the workplace is an ideal setting for educating people and encouraging them to stay fit and healthy, according to Dr Kate O’Flaherty, director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health.

“Workplaces are where the majority of us spend our days and where most of the country’s parents are, so it’s an ideal place to introduce initiatives that could have an impact outside of this,” she said.

“Health and wellbeing in the workplace are increasingly being looked at not just in terms of the negative effect they have on productivity and absenteeism, but also in terms of the opportunities it presents. If your organisation proactively seeks to keep employees healthy, those people will not only be more productive, but they’ll also feel less stress, and be more creative and innovative.

Evidence also shows that companies which promote and protect employees’ health are among the most successful and competitive, and enjoy better retention rates than those who don’t,” she said.

Many multinational companies and some of the bigger indigenous firms have been proactive in introducing health and wellbeing schemes. Business organisations are also now getting in on the act. Ibec is supporting Ireland’s first Workplace Wellbeing Day, which takes place on Friday, March 27th. The day is an expansion of the existing workplace wellbeing programme that Ibec-affiliated Food and Drinks Industry Ireland currently supports through the Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF).

According to a study of more than 1,000 Irish employees carried out by the foundation to coincide with the launch of the initiative, only one-third of respondents said they took the recommended weekly level of exercise for a healthy lifestyle. In addition, four in 10 office-bound workers admitted to not being physically active at all during their working day.

Muireann Cullen, manager of the NHF, says there is no one solution to the problem of obesity, but that initiatives such as Workplace Wellbeing Day can only help staff stay fit and healthy.

“All organisations can get involved in workplace health promotion to some extent. It naturally depends on the context and budgetary constraints that the organisation finds itself in as to what it can do; however there is always something that can be done,” Dr Cullen says. “It is vital for companies to involve staff from the very beginning to gain maximum support and to gauge their interest in what they would like to do and how they would like to see it working.”

Team spirit

As part of National Workplace Wellbeing Day, four companies, Aramark, Bank of Ireland, Fenero and Teleflex, will showcase what can be done promote better health at work.

Fenero, which provides tax and accounting solutions for contractors, employs 11 people. As its director Sinead Doherty is the first to admit, the company's wellbeing programme started as something of a personal crusade on her part.

“In terms of benefits, we have noticed an improvement in morale and team spirit, and there is definitely an increase in awareness of and interest in fitness and health.

“Sickness days and staff turnover at Fenero are extremely low and there is a general pride in the ethos of the company, which has impacted discernibly on employee recruitment.

“It gives us a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting the best candidates, which is critical for a business of our size.”

Clients of the company have also benefitted with access to free medical and life management support services.

“There are perceived barriers to promoting health and wellbeing, such as cost, but being a health-focused employer is not predicated on budget nor company size. Small changes can have a significant effect and such changes do not have to be expensive, Ms Doherty said.

“The good news is that transforming organisational culture can be done rapidly and at minimal cost in small businesses, via an injection of creativity and passion from the business owners. The result is usually greater productivity together with a more contented workforce.”