In Herry v Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, the Employment Appeal Tribunal considered whether stress is classed as a disability. Under the Equality Act 2010, a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The claimant was employed as a design and technology teacher from January 2008. From 2010, the claimant presented numerous sick notes to his employer containing conditions such as “leg pain and stress” and “ankle pain and stress”. From 2013, the sick notes simply contained “stress” or “stress at work”. An occupational health assessment was carried out which found that the claimant took no medication for stress and he was mentally and physically able to perform his role. The report found that there were outstanding management issues at work which caused the claimant’s stress and left him feeling unable to return to work. The claimant made numerous tribunal claims containing over 90 allegations including a claim of disability discrimination.

When examining whether the claimant was disabled, the Employment Tribunal drew a distinction between a mental impairment, protected under the Equality Act, and a reaction to life events. The ET decided that the employee’s stress was due to his unhappiness at his perceived unfair treatment and there was little or no evidence that the stress had a negative effect on his ability to carry out normal activities. The ET found that the employee was not disabled and also commented that the length of a period of sickness absence does not bind the ET to finding that the employee is disabled.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) agreed with the ET’s conclusion. They commented that there will be a class of cases where stress as a reaction to circumstances is likely to become entrenched and the person will not give way, compromise or return to work. Yet, in other respects, the stress causes little or no apparent adverse effect on normal day-to-day activities. Therefore, stress alone will not be classed as a disability.

Senior Employment Law Consultant, Elaine Muir says of this case: “This is good news for employers who quite often receive a fit note citing ‘stress’ as the reason for an employee’s absence; it means that all the usual considerations of the duty to make reasonable adjustments do not apply”.