Obesity in the Workplace
A recent European Commission report has decided that the UK is the most overweight country in Europe and the CIPD’s People Management magazine has taken the opportunity to dig out an old 2007 Department of Health review that tagged obesity as responsible for 16 million days of certified sick absence (totalling £1.3-£1.6 billion of lost earnings, apparently).
Evidence suggests that employers may discriminate against the obese
The DoH document states, “although a full discussion is beyond the scope of this review, there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that employers may discriminate against the obese, consciously or subconsciously, and may regard obesity as a signal of lower productivity”.
People Management is quite rightly a little disapproving of this deft sidestepping of the issues (if there are any) but to be honest, I’m not really sure what I think of what appears to be a non-story. After all, the EU report offers no views at all on the impact of weight on the workplace and the DoH review is pushing five years old.
There are two holes here. The first is in the reports, which use a definition of obesity based on body mass index (a measure of weight relative to height) at a time when some healthcare professionals are finding other measures (such as the waist: hip ratio) a better indicator of good or bad health (in other words, short and heavy doesn’t necessarily mean dangerously unfit).
Why pick on obesity?
The second is, why obesity? It’s a bit faddish. A bit “workplace issue of the month”. Why not cholesterol levels? Why not vitamin D deficiency? Identifying a particular group of people with a set of health risks which could affect their careers and workplace productivity is one thing, but in the absence of anything to suggest its particular relevance today, it feels a bit pointed.
The article is full of expert commentary and (as usual for the CIPD) includes a helpful steer for employers and HR professionals on the legal position. However, without a clear reason for the story, it begins to feel that the article itself is singling out obese people in the workplace for comment which is exactly what it tells employers not to do. The pun in the headline, “Obesity: bad for the bottom line?” doesn’t help.
Rationale for printing the story aside, as I say, the advice to employers is the usual CIPD common sense and can be summarised as follows:
• Obesity is not classed as a disability or other protected characteristic under the Equality Act but it’s hardly the act of a good employer to include a person’s weight in decisions that affect them in the workplace. Hence,
o Don’t generalise.
o Don’t moralise.
o Don’t make assumptions about a person’s skills, attitude and performance based on their weight.
• Manage all employees (regardless of physical or other traits) according to the company’s performance management system and other agreed HR policies and any accusations of unfair treatment are unlikely to stick.