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'Obesity discrimination' in the workplace and the Equality Act 2010: what does the law say?

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Reasonable adjustments and physical alterations - when is there a duty?

According to the NHS, obesity is estimated to affect around one in every four adults and around one in every five children aged 10 – 11 in the UK.    

The media has recently reported that there have been suggestions that employees who are considered to be obese, should be able to attend work later, request the provision of a larger chair in the workplace or work from home and if this is not granted by employers, then this could amount to discrimination.

In order to bring a claim for discrimination, a person would have to be able to provide sufficient evidence that they have been subjected to a detriment by their employer due to or linked to a protected characteristic. A protected characteristic is defined by section 4 of the Equality Act 2010 and includes:

  1. age;
  2. disability;
  3. gender reassignment;
  4. marriage and civil partnership;
  5. pregnancy and maternity;
  6. race;
  7. religion or belief;
  8. sex;
  9. sexual orientation.

Therefore, obesity is not considered to be a protected characteristic and is not covered under the Equality Act 2010. The act does not therefore lend to the call for ‘obesity discrimination’ to be considered in employment tribunals.

However, this does not mean that negative treatment of  those considered to be obese may not amount to discrimination. The NHS advises that obesity can lead to serious and life-threatening conditions such as:

  • type 2 diabetes;
  • coronary heart disease;
  • some types of cancer; and
  • a stroke

It can also lead to psychological conditions such as depression.

If a person has a medical condition(s) that is linked to their obesity, then they may qualify as having a disability in accordance with the definition set out by the Equality Act 2010:

‘A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’

If an employer treats an employee differently due to a disability related to obesity or fails to make reasonable adjustments pursuant to the requirements of them under the Equality Act 2010, then this may give rise to a claim for discrimination.

If you feel that you have been treated differently by your employer or subjected to a detriment due to a disability related to obesity, please call our specialist discrimination team for further advice on 0175 321 6399.

By Harriet Ledger, employment and discrimination advisor.

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