Dealing with Mental Health Illness and Discrimination at Work

Year Published: 2021

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual campaign designed to raise awareness for mental health illnesses.

According to CIPD and Simply Health’s Health and Wellbeing at Work survey, nearly four fifths (79%) of respondents reported stress-related absence in the past year. Also, HSE found that 17.9 million working days were lost to stress, anxiety or depression in 2019/20.

Mental Health First Aid England, there were 526,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain which accounts for approximately 72 million working days lost, costing between £34.9 billion – £99 billion each year.

A topical issue for employers therefore, is the way in which mental health illness should be managed to avoid discrimination at work.

Sickness Absence Policies  

As a starting point, having an effective sickness absence policy in place will assist employers in dealing with absences consistently and effectively. Employees will also be aware as to the standards of attendance and reporting that the employer expects from them, thereby helping to reduce legal risk from an employer’s perspective.

When an employee calls in sick, they should be dealt with sympathetically and appropriately questioned (such as the reason for their absence and likely date of return) so that sufficient information is obtained to make further enquiries or follow-up action.

This has added importance in cases of mental health illness as it is highly improbable that the employee will recover and return to work in the same manner as an employee with a cold would, therefore, follow-up action will be inevitable.


Keeping in appropriate contact with the employee is of paramount importance so that they do not feel isolated and uncared for. However, it may be prudent to depart from any contact provisions in a sickness policy and agree frequency of contact with the relevant employee. This will assist in minimising the risk of an employer exacerbating the employee’s symptoms. Contact can range from emails to telephone calls and meetings or a mixture of them all.

Conducting return to work interviews can be effective in managing absence. An employer can identify the cause of the employee’s absence and establish if any follow-up action will be required. They can also be used to welcome employees back and update them on any news whilst they were off.

Employers should document any contact they have with the employee by way of file notes, letters summarising the steps taken to contact the employee and any action plans agreed, or minutes of any meetings with the employee.

Keeping Up to Date on Medical Conditions

Sickness absence policies normally require employees to attend a medical examination in cases of long-term absence. Employers should consider requesting that the employee attends an examination with an independent specialist doctor or occupational health expert. An examination has two benefits to employers;

  • It can ascertain the medical condition of the employee and prognosis; and
  • It may recommend reasonable adjustments, such as a phased return to work or an alternation of duties, that the employer can implement to assist in rehabilitating an employee back into work, which should always be the primary objective.

A meeting should then be held with the employee to report and consult on the medical report before taking any action on the basis of its recommendations.

No Return to Work? 

In the first instance, employers should consider implementing reasonable adjustments and if that is not possible, they should consider whether there is another job available within the business that may be more suitable for the employee.

The unfortunate reality is that an employer cannot indefinitely sustain long-term absences with no resolution in sight. Where all options have been exhausted, dismissal may need to be considered.


Unfair Dismissal

From an unfair dismissal perspective, the right to which applies when an employee has 2 years’ continuous service, an employer can fairly dismiss an employee on the basis of absence. This is known as a ‘capability’ dismissal and is one of the five fair reasons for dismissal pursuant to section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

It is important to remember that before any dismissal, a fair procedure needs to be undertaken. This will involve obtaining medical evidence and inviting the employee to formal meetings to discuss the likelihood of their return to work in light of the medical evidence. It is advisable for employers to seek legal advice at each step of this process.

Discrimination: The Equality Act (EA) 2010 

The fact that mental health illness may constitute a ‘disability’ for the purposes of the EA 2010 should be at the forefront of an employer’s mind when considering the relevant employee’s management.

The EA 2010, quite rightly, protects employees who suffer from a disability from being treated less favourably as a result of, or something that arises from, their disability. Employers are also obliged to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled employees.

Should an employer treat an employee less favourably due to their disability, or fail to make reasonable adjustments, an employee can make a complaint to an Employment Tribunal that they have been unlawfully discriminated against. The financial and reputational costs of discrimination claims are significant for employers.

An important point to note is that unlike a claim for unfair dismissal, there is no requirement for an employee to have been continuously employed for a period of 2 years to present a claim for discrimination under the EA 2010, employees are protected from discrimination from as early as the recruitment stage.

Contact Us

For more information on discrimination at work or dealing with mental health illness, please do not hesitate to contact our Employment Law and HR team or get in touch on 0161 475 7676.

Further Resources

ACAS has also produced a useful guide in managing staff experiencing mental health illness which can be accessed on their website.

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