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Obesity – emerging risk for employers?

Last month a Danish child minder filed a case in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) claiming he had been discriminated against, and fired, for being overweight.

An ever-increasing proportion of the workforce is classed as overweight or obese (64% of adults in the UK and 52% in the EU). So the ECJ case, although relatively unreported, has significant impacts for organisations operating across Europe. If the court finds in the child minder’s favour and rules that obesity can/should be classed as a disability, this might mean that those who are morbidly obese could have the same discrimination rights as the disabled.

This story reflects a wider debate about the role of obesity and poor nutrition as a source of external risk to organisations. For instance, this year, new helicopter safety regulations will require overweight oil rig workers to slim down if they want to work offshore. In effect they are unfit to fly because they may not be able to escape in an emergency landing.

Mining in Australia has experienced a similar problem. Diabetes Queensland states that three in four employees in the mining sector are overweight or obese. The nature of shift working makes employees more susceptible to health risks such as type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. The mining industry may make strides in health and safety elsewhere, but will this trend present a new risk for it? Indeed, research by Liberty Mutual indicated that obesity was associated with a 25% higher risk of work related injury, independent of all other factors.

Employees spend up to 60% of their day at their workplace, and so arguably there is a duty of care by organisations to take an active role in their employees’ diet and wellbeing. This is particularly relevant to workers on oil rigs, given the nature of their work and that they may spend months at a time on board. However, obesity is a complicated problem with a diverse array of contributing behaviours.

Countering it will need the action and support of a number of parties. Employers may wish to consider their own contribution to tackling the problem. At its simplest – how easy is it for an employee to make a healthy decision over an unhealthy one?

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