Mental illness in the workplace – EAT rules

Posted: 28th November 2014

Stress2In a case which put the spotlight on the difficulties posed by mental illness in the workplace, a paranoid schizophrenic who was dismissed from his job for gross misconduct after he launched physical and sexual assaults on colleagues has had his compensation hopes boosted by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).

The man held a responsible position within a multinational insurance company but had suffered severe mental health problems requiring medication and admissions to psychiatric hospitals. The death of his mother appeared to have sent him over the edge and he had sexually assaulted two female colleagues and threatened others. Following the incidents, which ultimately led to criminal proceedings, he was swiftly admitted to a psychiatric intensive care unit.

In dismissing him, his employers found that he had failed to take his medication of his own volition and that there could be no guarantee that he would not commit further inappropriate acts against colleagues. They said that that was a risk which they were not prepared to take.

The man’s unfair dismissal and disability discrimination claims were rejected by an Employment Tribunal (ET). However, in allowing his appeal, the EAT found that the ET had focused excessively on the man’s ‘heinous’ actions, rather than his blameworthiness or culpability in respect of them.

Although serious, his actions were not such as to be incapable of explanation or mitigation and the ET had erred in concluding that dismissal necessarily fell within the range of reasonable responses open to the employer. There had also been only limited consideration of the impact of dismissal on the man and no critical evaluation of alternative steps which could have been taken, including requiring him to work from home. The EAT afforded the parties the opportunity to make further representations as to disposal or future management of the case.