With the majority of Americans being classified as either overweight or obese, it stands to reason that the vast majority of employers will have many overweight individuals as employees. While most of the time this is not something of consideration, some overweight individuals may benefit from employer assistance to ensure their working environment can accommodate them.
Some overweight or obese individuals may also qualify for protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if their weight and associated symptoms or problems (like joint pain, mobility difficulties, shortness of breath, diabetes, etc.) “substantially limit a major life activity.” Remember that the underlying condition may be a disability in its own right, regardless of the person’s weight. Also note that the ADA covers individuals who are “regarded as” disabled, even if other criteria are not met.
When an individual qualifies for protections under the ADA, the employer should utilize the interactive process to determine what accommodations may be used. As long as the individual is able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation, that person should be able to remain in the role and not be discriminated against.
Examples of Accommodations that May be Helpful
Here are a few examples of what could be reasonable accommodations for someone who has underlying conditions associated with weight, such as shortness of breath, limited mobility, and more:
- Providing work stations, office furniture, or other tools or equipment that are appropriately sized for the individual to remain comfortable and safe.
- Moving the person’s work location to a place that is more easily accessible, such as somewhere on the first floor (no stairs), closer to the entrance, or closer to workplace amenities. This can help individuals who have mobility constraints.
- Allowing frequent breaks, which is especially relevant for a role that requires physical labor. This can also be beneficial for anyone who has a condition that needs monitoring, like diabetes.
- Removing some of the non-essential functions from the role if those items are things the individual cannot achieve. (Note: the employer does not have to remove essential functions)
- Allowing part-time work or flexible hours if the individual is easily tired and would benefit from shorter work days.
Beyond Reasonable Accommodation: Other Ways Employers Can Help
Here are some examples of other ways employers can be supportive of overweight individuals in the workplace:
- Ensure that health insurance options have coverage for disability and weight-related problems.
- Consider providing employee wellness initiatives that are easy to join and focus on effort, not outcomes.
- Consider providing employee assistance programs (EAP), realizing that weight may be a symptom of another issue that an EAP can help to address.
- Ensure health insurance covers mental health as well. Some (though not all) weight issues can have related mental health concerns, which need to be addressed before the physical side.
- Be sure to have anti-harassment, anti-bullying, and anti-violence policies in place and enforced for all employees. Employees should be protected from this type of behavior, regardless of their weight.
- Consider training managers on recognizing and avoiding subconscious bias, which can result in overweight individuals being overlooked for well-deserved promotions or other employment perks or benefits.
- Train staff to ensure they’re not inadvertently discriminating. Ensure they’re being sensitive to employee accommodation requests.
- Train supervisors and managers to recognize and stop harassing or bullying behaviors.
What other considerations would you add to this list?
Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.