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Is obesity a disability?

By Thomas Sutherland

Whilst the definition of disability is wide, including both mental and physical conditions, obesity has not traditionally been viewed as a disability.

However, this long-standing view has changed in recent months following the European Court of Justice ruling that obesity can be considered to be a disability where it hinders “full and effective participation” in the workplace.

This is an important point because an employer cannot discriminate against someone suffering from a disability. Further, an employer has to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace environment to help a disabled employee overcome their disadvantage.

The decision in Bickerstaff v Butcher in the Northern Ireland Industrial Tribunal is the first example of a UK tribunal holding an obese employee to have a disability.

Mr Bickerstaff was morbidly obese and was verbally harassed by his colleagues due to his weight. Mr Bickerstaff had a BMI of 48.5 and developed gout and sleep apnoea as a result of his weight.

The harassment against him included spiteful and hurtful comments about his weight including statements to the effect of calling Mr Bickerstaff “so fat he would hardly feel a knife being stuck into him”.

Crucially, the tribunal attached no significance to the fact that Mr Bickerstaff’s condition was self-inflicted. The fact that Mr Bickerstaff could perhaps have lost weight and improved his condition was found to be of little importance. The vital fact to consider was the employee’s current status and condition, rather than its cause and potentially self-inflicted nature.

This case gives additional protection to workers exposed to bullying and abuse due to their obesity and opens up the potential of tribunal claims for degrading treatment on the grounds of obesity.

Employers should therefore be aware of the need to support severely overweight workers in the workplace. In particular, it is important that employers consider making reasonable adjustments to enable obese employees to perform their job without detriment due to their weight.

It is particularly crucial that employers train their staff to realise that bullying and harassment of any nature, on the grounds of a person’s individual characteristics, is unacceptable and will lead to appropriate disciplinary action against the perpetrators.

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