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Will obesity widen the scope of HR in the workplace?

BY Paul Deans
Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

The obesity epidemic that has swept the UK in recent years has never been far from the headlines.

In a recent case before the European Court of Justice, the court was been asked to rule on whether or not EU law protects obese workers from HR and secondly, whether or not obesity itself constitutes a recognised disability.  

The case in questioned involved a Danish child-minder who believed he was dismissed by his employers on the basis of his weight. The World Health Organisation recognises varying degrees of obesity, the most severe being those with a BMI of over 40. The Danish employee had a BMI of 54, and was therefore categorised as severely obese.  

After extensive discussion, the Advocate General issued a preliminary opinion stating that EU law does not include a general principle that would prohibit HR on the grounds of obesity. However, the Advocate General added that “if obesity has reached such a degree that is plainly hinders participation in professional life, then this can be a disability”. 

So what does this mean in practice? The core information that can be extracted from the Advocate General’s preliminary ruling is that obesity will not automatically constitute a disability. However, in extreme cases obesity could be classified as a disability. The proposed threshold test issued by the court is that an individual’s BMI must exceed 40, classifying them as ‘severely obese’. 

The apparent threshold test imposed by the court should give employers some peace of mind since it appears that obesity, in the everyday sense of the word, will not open up the floodgates to claims and demands of workplace adjustments. However, employers are urged to seek medical advice on any other health complications that may arise from the employee’s weight as well as continue to take advice from their Legal Manager. 

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