Legal advice: Obesity discrimination in the workplace in the UK


Obesity is associated with a significant increase in absenteeism amongst workers (absence from work because of illness or other factors).

According to Public Health England, the workplace costs associated with obesity are significant: it estimates that, for an organisation employing 1,000 people, more than £126,000 is lost per year from obesity-related health issues, such as back problems and sleep apnoea.

Although obesity has often been described as a ‘public health concern’, there is now evidence to suggest that obesity could have implications for employee productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism (lost on-the-job productivity) in organisations.

So, what is obesity?

Obesity has been defined by the World Health Organisation as an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health.

A body mass index (BMI) over 25 is considered overweight, and over 30 is obese. The NHS has stated obesity is a common problem in the UK that’s estimated to affect around one in every four adults and around one in every five children aged 10 to 11.

Adults spend a significant part of their lives either in the workplace or working and consequently, there is a need to understand the role that work and the workplace can have for obesity, the consequences of obesity at work and the exploration of avenues for its prevention.

The important question is, how should, and how can, employers foster a healthy lifestyle among their staff, without making overweight employees feel uncomfortable?

There is no set answer for this question as the issue of obesity in the workplace is complex.

Olivia Robinson of Woodfines Solicitors (image: Woodfines)

Employers should think about whether obesity in the workplace is related to job stress, shift work, long work hours, sedentary behaviour and how to overcome this issue by implementing programmes to incentivise weight loss and fitness.

Employers should also assess when the limitations faced by an obese employee reach the stage of having a negative impact on their ability to participate fully and effectively in professional life in the same way as their colleagues. In such cases, the employee’s obesity may be a disability.

Obesity and the law

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

As you can see, under current legislation, employees are not protected from discrimination on the ground of obesity alone, as they are for being disabled under section 6 of the Equality Act 2010.

It is only when an employee’s obesity is such that they are considered ‘disabled’ that they are protected from discrimination. This is because a disability is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and ‘obesity’ is not.

The act does not, therefore, lend to the call for ‘obesity discrimination’ to be considered in employment tribunals. To prevent discrimination or harassment, employers should make it clear they have a zero-tolerance policy of such behaviours, while also creating a supportive workplace culture for employees to come forward to report any such behaviour.

If you have any questions or queries regarding any of the above, please get in contact with our specialist Employment team at or on 0344 967 2505.

by Olivia Robinson
Paid partnership with Woodfines Solicitors

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