Tops tips on managing workforce health more actively in the light of a recent EAT decision as featured in People Management.
According to national statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre published earlier this year, the proportion of adult men considered to be obese increased from 13 per cent to 24 per cent between 1993 and 2011. For women the increase was from 16 per cent to 26 per cent. The impact of this trend is reduced productivity and increased absenteeism. But that is not the only risk.
A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal decision has highlighted that employers would be wise to encourage healthy living in their workforce to reduce the risk of employment claims. In Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd, the EAT held that physical and mental impairments which may have been caused by obesity could constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010. The focus should no longer be on what caused a disability but on the impairment itself which an employee might be suffering from.
For HR professionals, this ruling raises some challenging issues. Obese individuals may be more likely to develop illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, ulcers and suffer from high cholesterol levels, and these impairments might be considered by law to be a disability.
Organisations should take a good look at their workforce and see whether it has a high proportion of obese employees and whether some of those are already suffering from associated illnesses. If so, disability may be a much more common issue to deal with than they might have previously thought. There is a higher risk of having to make reasonable adjustments and of disability discrimination claims following the breakdown of a workplace relationship.
Developing policies to encourage healthy living will increase the welfare of the workforce and could help reduce the costs and disruption stemming from obesity. Organisations should:
- implement policies encouraging exercise and a good diet, such as cycle to work schemes, free or subsidised gym membership and free health checks
- design workplaces to encourage employees to make healthy choices, such as providing healthy snacks in vending machines and canteens, improving stairwells, changing the layout of the office, providing showers for cyclists and secure storage for bicycles
- hold internal and external events which involve exercise: for example, fundraising charity runs as part of a CSR programme, and team building exercises based on a physical activity.
When managing illness within a workforce, employers should:
- devise an absence policy which clearly sets out how excessive short or long term absences will be managed, and implement it consistently for all employees
- keep an accurate record of the number of absences and the reasons given for them by employees
- hold return to work interviews after every period of absence, even if it’s just a day
- in assessing whether an employee may be suffering from a disability, focus on the impairments they are suffering from and not the cause of those impairments – whether that might be smoking or obesity
- obtain advice from an occupational health adviser before taking any decisions
- consider and make any reasonable adjustments for disabled employees – and that includes those who are severely overweight and obese.
The process of managing illnesses caused by, for example, obesity or smoking is exactly the same as if it was caused by conditions such as depression or blindness. The focus should be on the impairment and not the cause unless an organisation is putting in place preventative measures to improve the health of its workforce.
Employers should avoid encroaching too heavily on employees’ private lives even with the best intentions in mind. People choose their own lifestyle after all - but that doesn’t mean that we can’t all benefit from a little positive encouragement now and then.
Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.