In a recent case, an employment tribunal has ruled that a gym trainer at Nuffield Health was discriminated against by their employer, after the trainer had refused to pick up sweaty towels due to a fear of body fluids.

Upon investigation of the employee’s claim, the tribunal found that the refusal was linked to a previously disclosed mental health condition, which had largely been ignored by management.

In this article, we explore the tribunal’s findings in closer detail, while questioning what employers can learn from situations involving mental health issues and potential discrimination.

The case – Mrs A Burton v Nuffield Health

Mrs Burton had been employed as a Gym Trainer at Nuffield Health since May 2018. She had a diagnoses of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which was linked to a phobia of coming into contract with bodily fluids.

In the tribunal, it was heard that Mrs Burton had disclosed her mental health condition to Nuffield Health at the interview stage of recruitment, and again to the in-house occupational health team during induction.

Occupational health then passed Mrs Burton as fit to do the job with agreed modifications, advising that she should not undertake any hygiene-related tasks to avoid triggering the anxiety disorder. It also recommended that she is made exempt from undertaking health appointments, which involved a blood test, and that her shift hours should be reduced to ensure “ample time off” to manage her condition.

“A sceptical attitude towards the condition”

The judge heard that a senior manager, who had not been made aware of Mrs Burton’s condition, had asked her to collect sweaty towels from the gym floor. Despite Mrs Burton explaining why she couldn’t pick them up, the manager responded by saying “we all have to do things that are unpleasant”. He then suggested that she should pick them up with gloves on.

Although Mrs Burton attempted to explain her condition and reasonable adjustments repeatedly, management at the gym continued to exhibit “a sceptical attitude towards the condition”.

After considering these findings, the tribunal decided that Nuffield Health had displayed a limited understanding of the employee’s condition, which was “surprising in an organisation whose purpose is to promote wellbeing”.

The judge then ruled that Mrs Burton had been subject to unlawful discrimination by Nuffield Health, with a payment of compensation ordered in response.

What can employers learn from this case?

Where an individual meets the definition of a disabled person under the Equality Act 2010, the employer is required to make reasonable adjustments. This applies to any element of the job which may place a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage when compared to a non-disabled person.

As outlined above, Nuffield Health had agreed reasonable adjustments with Mrs Burton, but they had ultimately failed to advise and train their managers effectively on how to adhere to these adjustments.

Therefore, this case highlights the need to ensure that your managers are trained on Equality and Discrimination. By providing effective training in this area, employers have a stronger chance of creating a statutory defence in situations where an employee has overstepped the mark and treated someone in a discriminatory manner.

We can help you to establish a fair and non-discriminatory working environment by providing comprehensive training in Equality and Discrimination. This can be delivered to all employees and managers as part of an ongoing process, giving you peace of mind that your grounds for defence are substantial if they are ever called upon.

To enquire about training, or for guidance on a potential equality and discrimination issue, call us today on 0345 076 2288 or complete the form below.