A research study by the Institute for Employment Studies has found that obese employees may be discriminated against at the recruitment stage and may also experience fewer progression and promotion opportunities.

The report, entitled Obesity and Work: Challenging stigma and discrimination, cited a number of studies indicating that obesity discrimination is prevalent in the recruitment process, with some employers questioning whether obese employees have the desired characteristics for their organisation.

Discriminatory practices were also found in the opportunities made available to obese people with regard to progression and promotion, not least because of widespread stereotypical beliefs about obese employees being lazy and lacking self-control. There is also evidence of a pay disparity with overweight and obese employees attracting lower pay.

The report points out, however, that work itself can be a cause of obesity as a consequence of a range of factors including eating behaviours, changes in metabolism and sleep patterns arising from shift working and other unconventional patterns of work.

Likewise, the authors point to the impact of job design on obesity. For instance, employees with reduced autonomy, few opportunities to participate in decision-making and increased psychosocial stress may be more at risk of becoming overweight.

Although obesity is often described as a matter of concern for public health, there is evidence to suggest that it has implications for employee productivity and absenteeism as employees who are overweight and obese may take more days of sickness absence in comparison to other employees. It is also associated with people losing their jobs leading to increased costs related to unemployment benefits and burdens on the NHS.

Although obesity may fall within the definition of a disability according to a decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union (weekly LELR 407), the Court did not go so far as to say that it is a disability.

As such, the authors note that obese employees may continue to be discriminated against. The report therefore makes a number of recommendations for the prevention of obesity at work such as making organisational changes with regard to workload and shift regimes.

Emma Game, of Thompsons Solicitors commented: "Often people can be quick to judge those who suffer from obesity. Whilst the judgement does not go as far as saying obesity is a protected characteristic in itself, a health impairment caused by obesity may be a disability and require reasonable adjustments. This should hopefully encourage employers to support its employees where possible and offer assistance and guidance to lead a healthy lifestyle."

To read the report in full, go to the Institute for Employment Studies' website