Katherine Maxwell explains how HR professionals can encourage employees to adopt a healthy lifestyle without creating a 'size-ist' culture 

With reports suggesting long-term sickness and absence may be fuelled by Britain's obesity crisis, organisations are finding themselves under pressure to foster a culture of healthy eating and living within the workplace. But they are likely to find themselves with an increasingly tricky line to tread as they work to encourage healthy living, while not seeming to be discriminatory. 

The relationship between obesity and absence from work hit the headlines in December 2016 when Dame Carol Black, who advised the government on the relationship between work and health, suggested people on benefits who are obese should attend sessions with a health adviser. This, Dame Carol argued, could encourage more people claiming benefits back into work.

Cost to the economy

A 2015 report by McKinsey & Company said obesity costs the UK nearly £47bn a year, with Nice reporting that an obese person takes on average four extra sick days a year.

According to Public Health England, the workplace costs associated with obesity are significant: it estimates that, for an organisation employing 1,000 people, more than £126,000 is lost per year from obesity-related health issues, such as back problems and sleep apnoea.

Because of this, Public Health England (and several other bodies) recommends that organisations create a culture of healthy eating and exercise among employees. That’s all well and good, but how should – and how can – employers foster a healthy lifestyle among their staff, without making overweight employees feel uncomfortable?

Although it attracted fewer headlines, Dame Carol’s report also exposed just how complex the issue of obesity in the workplace is.

Obesity and the law

As far as the law is concerned, employees aren’t protected from discrimination on the grounds of obesity alone – it’s only when an individual’s obesity is such that they are considered ‘disabled’ that the law protects them from discrimination. This may be because their weight hinders their ‘full and effective participation in professional life’, or they may have conditions related to their obesity that cause them to be considered disabled. In these instances, the guidelines for discrimination are clear.

To some extent this is irrelevant as all good employers want their staff to feel comfortable at work, regardless of whether the law classes them as disabled or not. For those not classed as disabled, bullying because of someone’s weight should not be tolerated and any reports of it treated by employers under a bullying and harassment policy.

To prevent discrimination or harassment employers should make it clear they have zero tolerance of such behaviours, while also creating a supportive workplace culture where people are encouraged to come forward and report to their managers any bullying or any perceived discrimination.

How then do employers implement a parallel culture of healthy living? The key to this is to formally address the issue, making clear that your company is committed to promoting a healthy workforce. Alongside this, you can detail the support available, clearly outlining how employees can participate as well as the provisions your business may have in place; this could be anything from access to healthy snacks to installing showers so employees can cycle or jog to work.

In short, transparency, openness and honesty are key – whether you are dealing with harassment and discrimination or encouraging employees to adopt a healthy lifestyle. An open-door policy is also advisable, so you create an environment where staff are comfortable going to their manager about the broadest range of issues.

There’s no denying that it’s a tricky line to tread and finding the right balance may not be easy, but doing so can provide benefits for employers and employees alike.

Katherine Maxwell is a partner and head of employment at Moore Blatch Solicitors