Obesity – is it a disability and what happens if it creates general health problems ?

Determining whether an employee is disabled in the legal sense can be extremely difficult for employers, especially where there are a range of health issues, each of which, may, of itself, be borderline according to the legal definition. A particularly useful case on this point from the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) is Walker v Sita

Home » Employment law » Obesity – is it a disability and what happens if it creates general health problems ?

Determining whether an employee is disabled in the legal sense can be extremely difficult for employers, especially where there are a range of health issues, each of which, may, of itself, be borderline according to the legal definition.

A particularly useful case on this point from the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) is Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd. Mr Walker was clinically obese and had a number of health conditions including asthma, knee and joint problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety and depression.

The case reached the Tribunal because the employer decided that none of the conditions, whilst they may potentially be capable of satisfying the test of a disability, in fact constituted disabilities in the case of the employee, and that the conditions has a significant element of ‘functional overlay’ with his weight problems. The Employment Tribunal agreed with this and found in favour of the employer and the employee appealed to the EAT.

The appeal was allowed with the EAT specifically stating that the Tribunal should have focused on the overall effect of the employee’s day to day ability to function. The correct test to be followed by an employer in this type of situation is : –

  • does the employee have physical or mental impairments which substantially affect him or here and which are longstanding ?
  • the cause or label for the impairments is a factual not a legal test.

Employers, based on the above, should be wary of adopting a technical approach to whether an employee is disabled, possibly hoping to rely on a medical assessment which can’t find a specific cause. Employers may feel less inclined to be sympathetic to employees who have physical disabilities which the employer might consider to be self induced. As this case shows, such an approach or attitude is dangerous. If conditions linked to being overweight, which is not in itself a disability, result in the employee being substantially adversely effected in being able to undertake normal day-to-day activities, they may be disabled and protected by the Equality Act 2010.

It is worth noting that alcohol or drug problems are specifically excluded as disabilities under the Equality Act but conditions which are potentially caused or made worse by alcoholism or drug addiction would potentially be disabilities and the employer cannot, based on the above case, argue that reasonable adjustments are not required because the conditions are fully or partially self induced.

Employment law

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