When does stress amount to a disability?
The recent case of Herry v Dudley Metropolitan Council reinforces the principle that stress alone is unlikely to constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010, without something more.
Mr Herry was employed by Dudley Metropolitan Council as a design and technology teacher. He began issuing sickness certificates in 2010 and was continuously absent from work from June 2011. Many of the certificates he issued stated that he was suffering from physical symptoms, such as leg or ankle pain, and stress. From October 2013 onwards, the physical symptoms were no longer referred to and the certificates simply referred to “stress” or “work related stress and anxiety”. He suggested that the behaviour of certain individuals was stopping him from returning to work at the school and was causing him stress.
Mr Herry then brought wide ranging complaints against his employer including disability discrimination (claiming that his disabilities were stress and dyslexia). The claims were extensive, covering 90 allegations over a four year period.
Both the employment tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal found that Mr Herry was not disabled. Neither his dyslexia nor stress met the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010:
- Does the employee have a physical or mental impairment?
- Does that impairment have an adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities?
- Is that effect substantial?
- Is that effect long-term?
Some adjustments had been made to the conduct of the original tribunal proceedings to take account of Mr Herry’s dyslexia. However, as tribunal proceedings could not properly be considered as “normal day-to-day activities”, this did not provide evidence that he was disabled as a result of his dyslexia.
In relation to the allegation that his stress amounted to a disability:
- There was a dearth of information in relation to the nature of the work related stress. The medical certificates indicated Mr Herry did not take any medication for stress and was mentally and physically fit to perform his role.
- Mr Herry could not show that the stress he suffered had an adverse impact on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities:
- Mr Herry’s stress was largely the result of unhappiness about what he saw as unfair treatment at work: “unhappiness with a decision or a colleague, a tendency to nurse grievances, or a refusal to compromise are not of themselves mental impairments: they may simply reflect a person’s character or personality”.
- Just because an employee has been certified as unfit for work due to stress does not mean that they are disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act.
- There is a distinction between a mental impairment such as clinical depression/anxiety (which could be a disability) and stress caused by adverse life events including difficulties at work (which will not be a disability without something more).
Advice for employers
This case does not offer a new principle on disability discrimination but it is a useful reminder that stress alone, without something more, is unlikely to amount to a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act.
It is important to remember the distinction made between stress arising as a result of adverse life events and stress which is caused, or worsened, by a clinical condition such as depression or anxiety.
If you need any advice in relation to stress in the workplace, please get in touch with a member of the employment team.