Does Long-Term Stress Amount to a Disability?
The question of whether an employee on long-term absence because of stress was suffering from a disability was faced by Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council (the Respondent). The employee thought it did, which was disputed by his employer. The question was ultimately decided by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.
The following discussion of the background to this case and of the statutory provisions will assist employers should they are faced with the same question.
The Claimant had been diagnosed as suffering from dyslexia in 1996 when he went to university to study architecture. He successfully completed his degree he obtained a teaching qualification. He was employed by the Respondent Council as a teacher of design and technology from January 2008. While he taught at the Respondent’s school he did not mention his dyslexia to his colleagues or ask for adjustments.
Commencing in May 2010, the Claimant lodged many sickness certificates. He had, in fact, been continuously away on sick leave from June 2011 until the conclusion of the case before the employment tribunal in August 2014.
His sickness certificates fell into two main groups:
- From May 2010 until April 2013 the certificates referred to a physical injury; and
- From October 2013 onwards, they gave the description “stress at work”, “work related stress”, “stress”, or “stress and anxiety”.
Notwithstanding the reasons given for the employee’s long-term absence, the Respondent did not accept that he was disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.
Claims for disability
The Claimant asserted two disabilities: dyslexia and stress.
Starting in 2012, the Claimant made more than 90 allegations of race and disability discrimination that were heard in the employment tribunal over a period of 39 days. The claims were heard between February and August 2014. He had told the employment tribunal that he was dyslexic and asked for adjustments, which were made for him.
The employment tribunal found that, while he may require time to digest written and oral instructions, he was intelligent and able to analyse, with the benefit of a short period of time, documents and instructions and to fully comprehend them”.
During the period of the employment tribunal hearings the certificates stated “work related stress” and “stress” as being the reasons why the Claimant was unfit for work, although the last such certificate said that he might be fit for work, benefiting from a phased return to work.
There was a dearth of information in the medical documents about the nature of the “work related stress”. A GP’s letter dated 25 November 2014 and an Occupational Health report dated 17 March 2015 both referred to the stress of tribunal proceedings.
The Occupational Health report said that the Claimant took no medication for stress and was mentally and physically fit to perform his role. It said that from the medical point of view he could return to work as soon as possible; but there were outstanding management (non-medical) issues at the workplace which are causing stress.
A certificate dated 31 March 2015 said that “Patient feels the behaviour of certain individuals [is] what is stopping him from returning to work at the school and causing his stress”.
The statutory provisions
Under the Equality Act 2010:
- A person (P) has a disability if P has a physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
- “Substantial” means more than minor or trivial.
- The effect of an impairment is “long-term” if it has lasted for 12 months, or if the period for which it lasts is likely to be at least 12 months.
- An impairment is to be treated as having the requisite substantial adverse effect if measures are being taken to correct it and but for those measures, the impairment would have that effect.
Appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal
On appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal considered the distinction between stress and mental illness and stated 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.”
The employment tribunal had found that the Claimant’s “stress” was very largely a result of his unhappiness about what he perceived to have been unfair treatment of him. The tribunal also found that there was little or no evidence that his stress had any effect on his ability to carry out normal activities. Conducting litigation and giving evidence at a tribunal hearing are not normal day-to-day activities because they do not affect participation in professional life.
Nor was the employment tribunal bound to find that the Claimant had a disability because he had been certified unfit for work by reason of stress for a long period. The Claimant failed to establish that he was under a disability for the linked reasons that:
- He did not establish that he suffered from a mental impairment; and
- He did not establish the requisite substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities..
So, does long-term stress amount to a disability? The Employment Appeal Tribunal answered the question by saying:
Long-term stress does not of itself amount to a disability. Something else is required and that something is evidence of:
- A mental impairment, which has
- A substantial and long-term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out their normal day-to-day activities.
Not surprisingly, the appeal was unsuccessful.