Mental Health Problems Can Be Just as Disabling as Physical Incapacity

The word 'disabled' may bring to mind a person who is physically incapacitated, but the definition of the word in employment law terms is far broader than that. The point was made by a case in which an Employment Tribunal (ET) found that anxiety and depression suffered by an unsuccessful job applicant amounted to a disability (Sampson v NHS Blood and Transplant).

The woman was offered a position with an NHS authority subject to pre-employment checks. She was asked to submit a personal statement in order to explain a gap in her employment history, including details of any sickness absences. After she did so, the offer was withdrawn on the basis that her history of anxiety and depression might render her unable to cope with the pressure of the post. The authority expressed concerns about the potential impact of the role on her mental health.

After she launched a disability discrimination claim, the authority denied that her condition met the definition of disability enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. It was, amongst other things, submitted that her mental health problems represented, to a large extent, temporary reactions to a bereavement and other adverse life events.

In ruling on the matter, the ET noted that she had endured intermittent bouts of anxiety and depression of varying severity for five or six years. Her symptoms were at times severe enough to trigger panic attacks and interrupted sleep. She had needed to take time off sick from her previous employment and her medical records consistently recorded her as having long-term mental health problems.

The ET found that those problems impinged on her ability to carry out day-to-day activities and that their effects were substantial, sometimes even preventing her from leaving her home. Given the duration of her symptoms and the probability that they would recur, her condition could properly be viewed as long term. It therefore amounted to a mental impairment – and thus a disability – within the meaning of the Act. The ET's ruling opened the way for her to proceed with her disability discrimination claim.

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