An employment tribunal has ruled that a law firm partner was discriminated against by his employer, at a time when he was suffering from burnout.
Upon reaching the decision, it was found that the firm had failed to understand its employee’s ongoing mental health conditions, therefore failing to respond in an appropriate manner.
The claimant, Mr Taplin, was Managing Partner of the firm’s Derby office and had been one of their top earners for several years. Prior to this trial, Taplin had been working in excess of 15 hours per day.
This case demonstrates the importance of mental health and burnout awareness, while highlighting the risk of disability discrimination that can be associated with this.
How is burnout defined at work?
Employers need to be aware that excessive or prolonged stress can build up over time and result in burnout.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout is defined as a syndrome of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
It can often be characterised by feelings of low energy or exhaustion, along with increased distance mentally from an individual ‘s job and/or feelings of negativity or cynicism related towards that job.
Disability and the Equality Act
Under the Equality Act 2010, a person is disabled if they have a mental or physical impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse impact on their ability to undertake normal day-to-day activities.
It should also be noted that ‘substantial’ means more than minor or trivial, and ‘long term’ applies to anything lasting for 12 months or longer.
Case – Taplin v Freeths LLP
In this case, the employer was aware of the long hours worked by the employee. They also knew that he had been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder, anxiety, and depression.
Despite this, the employer had taken no steps to address his excessive working.
On the occasions that Taplin did take a break from work for his mental health, the firm relied upon him to seek out his own counselling advice. They also made no further enquiry about the impact of his disability or how they could support him moving forward.
At the end of Taplin’s break, the employer also failed to implement a return to work plan, making no reasonable adjustments to support his mental health conditions.
In its defence, the employer argued that it had an Employee Assistance Programme in place, through which professional counselling was offered to staff.
However, use of this was dependent upon the employee being aware of the service, with the tribunal finding that nobody within the firm had directed Taplin towards it.
What can employers learn from this?
Long hours culture, under resourcing, and excessive pressure should always be avoided by businesses.
As shown above, these factors are likely to have a detrimental impact on employees, and this impact will worsen significantly for anyone suffering from a disability and/or mental health condition.
If you recognise the signs of a potentially burnt-out employee, it is crucial that you take action as early as possible. Failing to do so could result in an employment tribunal claim against your business, alongside a negative effect on employee health, morale, engagement, and overall performance.
In recent weeks, there have been notable comments from employers in the aviation industry, which could come back to haunt them in terms of claims.
As an employer, it is important to remember that you may be liable for all types of discrimination, along with any psychiatric injury sustained by employees.
If you have an Employee Assistance Programme in place, think about how you can raise awareness of the service in your organisation to ensure that staff are using it when needed.