Given recent high profile campaigns raising awareness of mental health issues it is perhaps useful to revisit the issue of whether stress in the workplace can amount to a disability? The short answer is that it’s unlikely but not impossible.

The starting point is to always consider whether the legal definition of disability is met namely, whether a person has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

In a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case the court accepted that whilst it is possible that work related issues can indeed result in a real mental impairment for many individuals, they highlighted the distinction between cases such as clinical depression (which is capable of amounting to a disability) and those cases which are not a mental condition but simply a reaction to ‘adverse life events’. The court acknowledged that it can be difficult to differentiate between the two especially since many people, including health professionals, use the terms ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ without clear distinction.

Another point that the court recognised is that it’s possible that a person’s reaction to circumstances or workplace issues can become so entrenched that they will not give way or compromise. They may even refuse to return to work but yet in other respects suffer no or little apparent adverse effect on their normal day-to-day activities. In such cases, the court said, it is open to employment tribunals to find no mental impairment.

However, it is important to caution that the court did not rule out the possibility of stress amounting to a disability, provided of course it meets the definition given above. In any event, the case does not absolve employers’ responsibility to deal with stress cases. Employers should continue to take steps to deal meaningfully with allegations of stress at work to look after the health of their workforce and avoid other potential legal issues. Taking timely advice in every case is strongly advised.

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