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Obesity as a disability

A recent European Court of Justice ruling means that obesity can be classed as a disability in certain circumstances. In which case, the employee in question will be protected from discrimination.

Disability itself is defined as 'a limitation which results from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments, which may hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers'. So this is not just about someone who's put on a bit of weight over Christmas. It's about situations where the effects are significant and 'long term'.

Obesity in itself is not a disability. But, if an employee's obesity causes them an impairment, such as reduced mobility, then it may be classed as a disability under discrimination legislation.

This concept came to the media's attention a little while ago when a Royal Mail postman had to leave his job when an eating disorder resulted in him being too fat, and hence too immobile, to deliver letters. The debate took place as to whether Royal Mail should have made reasonable adjustments such as offering him a sedentary office-based role instead.

Now, the ECJ ruling does mean that if obesity causes reduced mobility or leads to the onset of medical conditions preventing someone from carrying out work, or causing them discomfort when exercising professional activity, it falls under the remit of the EU's Equal Treatment Directive.

It seems that every case will need to be determined on its own facts. And it has been stated that only severe, extreme or morbid obesity would be likely to create the necessary limitations to amount to a disability.

However, it is now considered more likely that UK companies will find that obese employees may come forward and request changes to their working environment. So, staff – like the former Royal Mail worker – who require a certain level of fitness for their role, but who become obese during their employment, may have to be considered for redeployment into a different job.