UK Employment Tribunal considers obesity to be a disability

Last month, following an earlier ruling in December 2014 by the European Court of Justice, the first Tribunal in the UK found that obesity can be considered a disability and ruled a claimant to be disabled and upheld a claim of harassment in the work place.

The claimant was subject to harassment at work because of his weight, with offensive remarks being made by one fellow worker in particular. The Tribunal heard evidence about the claimants weight and related health issues and the judge was satisfied that the claimant had “been harassed for a reason which related to his disability, namely his morbid obesity condition”.

The Tribunal ruling referred to a case for unfair dismissal brought before the European Court of Justice last year where a Danish employee claimed he was dismissed for being too fat. In this case the court ruled that where an employee was hindered by obesity and could not “fully and effectively participate” in the workplace it could count as a disability.

Any argument that obesity may be self inflicted, for example if medical reports indicate that losing weight might lead to an improvement in health, do not appear to make any difference in the eyes of the tribunal as they ruled that the important issue relates to the impact on the individual rather than the cause.

Employers should be aware of these recent decisions as it is likely that one of the more common challenges an obese employee may find in the workplace is inappropriate comments from other workers and as these two rulings indicate that obesity can be considered a disability this could lead to claims of disability harassment. Consideration should be given to updating Disability Discrimination policies and training in light of these rulings.