The case of Kaltoft v Billund
After some speculation, the decision is in: the effects of obesity can sometimes amount to a disability.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) reached this conclusion following a referral from a Danish court in Kaltoft v Billund. The case concerned a childminder who claimed that his obesity was a factor in his redundancy.
What the ECJ has said is that if someone’s obesity causes them to have a physical or mental impairment which satisfies the legal definition of disability, they could be protected by discrimination legislation. So obesity, by itself, doesn’t confer legal protection, but its effects could render a person disabled for employment law purposes.
Not every obese person will be disabled. But those who are unable to participate in professional life on an equal basis with other workers could well be. This will have to be judged on a case-by-case basis, focusing on the effect of a person’s obesity, rather than the cause or extent of the obesity itself.
What does this mean for employers?
Well, you may need to become more aware of the way in which obesity affects your workers. You might look to take greater steps to promote healthy lifestyles for the obese. And, on a legal as well as a practical and mindful level, consider making reasonable adjustments to working conditions so that overweight workers are not at a disadvantage compared with other workers. It could mean reconfigured workstations, parking spaces or new working patterns; the solution will be dictated by the circumstances. Ultimately, it’s about levelling the playing field.