When performance, misconduct and other workplace disputes occur it is common for the employees involved to be signed off with stress. These employees will qualify as disabled and be protected from discrimination if they can show they have a mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. A recent case in the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) offers helpful guidance on when stress might amount to a disability.
The case concerned Mr Herry, a design and technology teacher, who was on long-term sick leave due to workplace stress. Mr Herry brought claims alleging disability discrimination by his employer, relying on stress (and his long-standing dyslexia) to establish a disability. An employment tribunal determined he was not disabled and Mr Herry appealed.
The EAT upheld the tribunal’s decision. Focusing on stress, it echoed the tribunal’s findings that Mr Herry’s stress was largely a result of unhappiness about what he perceived to have been unfair treatment and that he had provided little or no evidence that his stress had any effect on his ability to carry out day-to-day activities. It held that Mr Herry had failed to establish that he was disabled as he did not establish a mental impairment nor the requisite substantial long-term adverse effect.
The EAT explained that there is a distinction between a clinical mental impairment and what is simply a reaction to life events. It indicated that Mr Herry’s case fell into the latter category and that while his reaction to events at work had become entrenched this did not amount to a mental impairment.
Employers will welcome this decision, which confirms that the burden rests with employees to show that their work-related stress has a substantive and long-term adverse impact on their day-to-day activities. The decision also suggests that without appropriate supporting evidence, a doctor’s note referring to ‘stress’ will not on its own be sufficient to establish a disability. However, employers should still be proactive when an employee is on long-term sick leave due to stress. Maintaining an appropriate level of contact and obtaining a medical report will help employers assess the practical impact of an employee’s stress and whether or not it may be sufficiently serious to qualify as a disability.