Weight loss call for NHS nurses could trigger tribunal claims

Telling fat NHS nurses to lose weight is a step too far and could lead to disability or constructive dismissal claims, leading HR experts have warned.

A Department of Health report published earlier this week called on overweight NHS staff to shed the pounds, to set a good example to patients. Some 700,000 nurses, midwives and health visitors are thought to be obese, and the Healthy Weight Healthy Lives report specifically asks them to change their own eating behaviours and lifestyles. Obesity could cost the economy an estimated £50bn a year by 2050.

But Linda Scott, head of HR at the British Transport Police, said she was “sceptical” that telling employees to lose weight would promote good health. “It’s the responsibility of employers to educate people, but they shouldn’t take responsibility for what people do in their private lives. This is a gut reaction from the government in response to data that health professionals have the highest absence rates,” she told Personnel Today.

She added: “Employers’ focus should be on advice and education. They should be negotiating with providers to give people access and discounts to things like gyms and other places where they can go and take exercise.”

Helen Giles, HR director at homeless charity Broadway, agreed employers should provide information on healthy living, but insisted it is not HR’s responsibility to tell employees they are overweight unless their size impedes their work.

“People can take responsibility for their own health. It’s not my business to tell somebody ‘you are too fat’, or ‘you should lose weight’. My responsibility is to set up a working environment where you are productive and you want to come to work,” she said.

A legal expert also warned any attempts to enforce weight loss programmes or target specific individuals would be “fraught with difficulties”.

Guy Lamb, employment partner at DLA Piper, said the proposals could lead to increased victimisation and constructive dismissal complaints. A number of factors could cause weight gain, including medical conditions which can be classed as disabilities. “If you single someone out on the basis of weight, and that’s down to a disability, this could lead to discrimination claims,” he said.

Bad timing

HR directors also expressed concern at the government’s timing for these proposals, with HR functions already working to tight budgets.

Roy Mark, HR director at electrical retailer DSGI Business, told Personnel Today: “While the intent is well meaning, it is not great timing to try and do this in a recession.

“I would caution any well meaning HR professional [against] trying to suggest to their board colleagues that they divert valuable resources from core business challenges onto this latest government initiative at this time.”

But Sian Thomas, director of NHS Employers, told Personnel Today it is important that NHS staff practice what they preach and can offer themselves as “role models” for public health initiatives.

She said: “If you are in the business of promoting something like improving health, it’s important you role model the way people go about doing that.”

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