This week (13-19 January) is National Obesity Week which aims to promote awareness and management of obesity issues.  Obesity is a growing epidemic in the UK – we have one of the fattest nations in Europe and are mirroring the US where this alarming trend started. It is forecast that if the trend is not contained by 2050 half of the UK population will be overweight.  Many restaurants these days tend to promote “eat as much as you like” menus and fast food restaurants always try to up sell their foods such as MacDonalds where the assistants always ask “would you like fries with that?”.  TV programmes regularly bring the matter to our attention.

Obesity and weight management causes a great deal of health problems and is putting a huge strain on the NHS.  A recent TV programme highlighted that special furniture is being used in hospitals to accommodate larger patients such as bigger beds and chairs.  This is a cost to taxpayers.  The problem is beginning at an early age with many school age children who are overweight.   Successive governments have sought to provide education on healthy eating in schools to help the problem, providing guidance on school meals and promoting physical education.  Whilst over eating is a big cause of obesity, the lack of physical exercise is the main contributor whilst a genetic link to being over weight has also been discovered..  Obesity can cause diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and an increase in certain cancers. Prevention rather than cure should be at the heart of weight management.

An article published by Personnel Today a few years ago highlighted the problem of discrimination in the workplace against the obese.  Apparently many companies would turn away from employing an obese candidate, would pass them over for promotion and they are more likely to be made redundant.  The Equality Act does not protect those who are fat specifically; those who feel they are being discriminated against have to rely on other protected characteristics.  Research done a few years ago in the UK highlighted the existence of stereotyping in that fat people are perceived to be emotionally impaired, socially handicapped and as possessing negative personality traits.

Dismissal for being fat per se is unlawful, however, a company may possibly be able to rely on capability if an employee is unable to do their job correctly as the impact of impaired mobility, reduced stamina, breathlessness and sleep apnoea caused by obesity may reduce job performance.  Statistics show that an obese person is twice as likely to be off work sick than a healthy employee.

Employers have an essential role to play as work may contribute to the condition given that sedentary jobs are now very common and the way we all work now avoids physical activity together with the many hours we all spend in our cars driving, rather than walking to work.

High-calorie, high-fat food is often available in canteens and vending facilities dispense high sugar drinks. Buffet lunches are commonplace and are often a source of enormous calorie intake with the lazy style of eating.

So what can employers do?