Obesity is a term used to describe someone with a high body fat percentage and who is therefore very overweight. Obesity is linked to other health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure and it affects 25% of the UK population.
What are the signs and effects of obesity?
BMI – body mass index – can be used to determine whether a person is a healthy weight for their height. A BMI of 30 or more is an indicator that someone is obese. However, a high muscle mass can increase BMI, so waist measurements can be used in conjunction with BMI to work out whether someone who may be classified as obese may be at risk of high body fat-related health problems. For women, a waist measurement of over 80cm and 94cm for men is an indicator that they are obese.
Effects of untreated obesity include:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Coronary heart disease
- Cancers, including bowel cancer
- Joint problems, including osteoarthritis
- Breathing difficulties, including sleep apnoea and asthma
- Reduced fertility
- Liver and kidney disease
- Complicated pregnancy, including gestational diabetes.
How is obesity treated?
There is no fast-acting cure for obesity, but a small amount of weight loss can reduce someone’s risk of developing the above complications, which in turn can improve life expectancy (reduced in someone with obesity).
Obesity can often be treated over time with a combination of monitored, balanced diet and regular exercise, alongside attending weight loss support groups if a person feels they will benefit from mutual support.
Lifestyle changes can help someone with obesity whose condition has been caused by poor diet and exercise, but this is not always the underlying cause of a person’s obesity.
In the case of some people with obesity, genetics may be the cause. Genetic conditions such as Prader-Willi syndrome cause a person to eat to excess. Other medical conditions such as an underachieve thyroid gland and polycystic ovaries (PCOS) can also contribute to weight gain.
Someone who is obese may also have a mental health condition which is affecting their weight, such as anxiety or depression, of which a side effect in some people can be overeating. The same is true of bulimia or binge-eating disorder – often triggered by stress – and the resultant obesity may require psychological therapy alongside lifestyle changes, in order to be improved.
There are a few ways to confirm what sort of reasonable adjustments should be made for an employee with obesity:
An employee may not disclose their obesity upfront, but if they do, questions regarding the nature of an employee’s obesity and what extra support they may need can be broached sensitively. For example:
- Have they required adjustments in the past? For example, a car parking space closer to the workplace entrance if their obesity is causing mobility issues
- Encouraging the employee to express their strengths and interests and which tasks they might enjoy doing is a positive way of adapting to their needs and empowering them, in spite of their obesity, which often has stigma surrounding it.
- Obesity is considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010 and so the employee has a right to be respected, as an employer would any health condition covered by the Act.
What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with obesity?
Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with obesity if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has obesity. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.
If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of obesity:
- Flexible working hours to accommodate medical appointments and fatigue, which people with obesity may experience.
- Adjustments to duties depending on the extent of their obesity. For example, an employee with obesity may not be able to stay on their feet all day or operate certain machinery due to obesity-related osteoarthritis.
- Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s obesity and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work.
- Prevention of obesity, such as by adapting the workplace culture of bringing in sugary cakes and biscuits to share round, which can lead to weight gain among the workforce as a whole. It is in the employer’s interest to keep the workforce healthy, to save money spent on sick pay, for example.
Obesity UK – charity and membership organisation aiming to reduce the stigma surrounding obesity and represent people living with obesity, as well to improve obesity-related education and the advice and treatment accessible to people living with the condition.
Helping Overcome Obesity Problems (HOOP) – organisation working to improve the prevention and treatment of obesity at a healthcare level, as well as to provide people living with obesity the non-judgmental support they need to improve their lives (0303 300 03 14).
British Obesity Society – organisation aiming to inspire people of all ages to implement positive behaviours to get and stay healthy while providing advice and support for people living with obesity in the UK.