Bickerstaff v Butcher: UK employment tribunal rules obesity is a disability
An employment tribunal has become the first in the UK to consider obesity as a disability. This follows last year’s ruling in the European Court of Justice.
Bickerstaff v Butcher
Mr Bickerstaff worked at Randox Laboratories where he claimed he was harassed by a number of colleagues, in particular Mr Butcher, because of his weight.
He claimed that Mr Butcher harassed him on an almost daily basis making comments such as he was "so fat he could hardly walk" and he was "so fat he would hardly feel a knife being stuck into him." Mr Bickerstaff brought a claim for harassment, a form of discrimination on the ground of disability.
The Employment Tribunal considered whether Mr Bickerstaff's obesity constituted a disability. Mr Bickerstaff suffered from gout, which was linked to his diet and weight problems, and this led to knee, joint and back pains. He also suffered from other health problems, including sleep apnoea, frequent tiredness and loss of concentration which were also directly linked to his weight.
Medical evidence suggested that Mr Bickerstaff’s morbid obesity could end after around six months, provided he lost weight at the rate of one to two pounds per week. However, there was no evidence to conclude that this was likely to be the case.
The Tribunal upheld Mr Bickerstaff's claim of harassment. It was satisfied that Mr Bickerstaff had been harassed for a reason which related to his disability, namely his morbid obesity condition.
What this means for you
The important issue for the Tribunal was the impact of the condition, not its cause. It made no difference that medical evidence suggested that Mr Bickerstaff's condition was self-inflicted or that his health would have improved if he had lost weight.
It’s imperative you always look beyond the cause of an employee’s symptoms and instead consider how those symptoms adversely affect the employee’s day-to-day life.
This case also highlights the need to ensure employers are aware that they can be held liable for the actions of their employees. It’s crucial that appropriate training is given to employees so they’re aware of what could constitute harassment.
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