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Formal diagnosis not needed for stress to be a disability

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Peninsula Team, Peninsula Team

(Last updated )

The Employment Tribunal (ET), in the case of Phillips v Aneurin Bevan University Local Health Board, had to consider whether stress could be a disability even where there has not been a formal health diagnosis.  

The claimant brought claims for disability discrimination, discrimination arising from a disability and a failure to make reasonable adjustments against their employer. In the claim, the claimant stated they were disabled due to dermatitis and stress at work.

In relation to the dermatitis, the claimant had suffered an allergic reaction to latex gloves, and so used vinyl gloves at work instead for several years. However, during Covid the respondent informed them that they could no longer use the vinyl gloves and that they would need to trial alternatives. One of these alternatives, unfortunately, led to another allergic reaction. Making the change to the gloves, the claimant argued, was discrimination and a failure to make a reasonable adjustment.

The claimant also claimed that their stress at work amounted to a disability. The claimant had been signed off work as sick on several occasions due to stress at work. As a result of this stress, they were more easily upset and at times unable to leave the house or socialise as they would normally.

A preliminary hearing was arranged to determine whether the two disabilities cited by the claimant fit the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010.

Dermatitis

The ET was satisfied that the issues with the claimant’s hands following the allergic reactions were sufficiently serious to be deemed a physical impairment but whilst the dermatitis did affect the claimant’s day-to-day life, this was not substantial. It was reasonable to expect the claimant to modify their behaviour to avoid a reaction through the adoption of simple measures. As a result, the ET concluded that the dermatitis is not a disability.

Stress at work

The first question the ET had to establish was whether the claimant suffered from work-related stress. Medical evidence clearly showed that they did.

The ET concluded that the stress (the “impairment”) felt by the claimant did have a significant impact on their ability to perform day-to-day activities, and as such fulfilled the test of “substantial adverse effects”. As the issues had already been going on for some time, they were also long-term. The ET therefore held that it is not necessary for a formal diagnosis of a mental illness to be given for an impairment to be a disability.

The case was permitted to continue to a full ET hearing, to determine if discrimination had occurred in relation to the stress at work.

Whilst only ET, and therefore not binding authority, this case provides a useful test for determining when a mental health issue could be serious enough to be a “disability”. It also opens up the possibility for stress in itself to be a disability, which before this case it was largely assumed it could not be.

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