Is Work-Related Stress a Disability?
Stress is one of the most common cause of absence for workers and stress-related employee illness is a very significant issue for many employers. But does “stress” count as a disability for the purposes of the discrimination legislation?
As the recent case of Herry v Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council illustrated, the answer is “not necessarily”.
Mr Herry brought a large number of allegations of race and disability discrimination against his employer. He claimed two disabilities: dyslexia and stress – conditions that many employers will recognise as being both common and difficult to assess in practice. The employment tribunal dismissed the claims and imposed a heavy costs award against Mr Herry as he had repeatedly been warned that his claim had no reasonable prospect of success. The disability discrimination claims were rejected as he had failed to show that either his dyslexia or his stress had “a substantial adverse effect on his ability to carry out day-to-day activities” – this is one of the key requirements for a condition to qualify as a disability under the relevant legislation.
Mr Herry appealed – unsuccessfully – to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). The EAT noted that the Mr Herry’s stress was “very largely the result of unhappiness about what he perceived to be unfair treatment of him” rather than an illness that would qualify as a disability. It also said that “unhappiness with a decision or a colleague, or a tendency to nurse grievances or a refusal to compromise, are not of themselves mental impairments”.
Every case will turn on its facts, and with a few exceptions such as cancer (where the Equality Act deems the condition to be a disability) it is not a case of whether someone has a particular condition, but the effect that the condition has on their ability to participate in professional life.
Nonetheless, this case should give some real comfort to employers who recognise the situation where an unhappy employee incurs a lengthy absence, or brings internal procedures to a halt, citing stress as the underlying reason. As the EAT found, the fact that an employee had been certified unfit for work by reason of stress for a long period does not necessarily mean he is “disabled”. The focus should always be on the real-life impact of the individual’s condition. Of course, even in the absence of disability discrimination claims a stressed employee can be difficult to deal with from an HR perspective, but at least the risk of disability discrimination claims is reduced.
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