Hospital worker’s phobia posed dilemma

Posted: 25th October 2018

NeedleMaking reasonable adjustments to cater for employees’ disabilities can be tricky and few employers can have experienced more of a challenge than an NHS trust faced by a hospital worker’s severe phobia of blood and needles.

The occupational therapist, who taught patients carpentry skills in a hospital workshop, was so squeamish that he could not face stepping onto the ward. Watching medical programmes was enough to trigger an anxiety response. The crisis came when he felt sick during a ward meeting. He went off sick, suffering from stress, and did not return. He was dismissed on medical grounds.

He subsequently complained to an Employment Tribunal that the trust had failed to make the reasonable adjustments necessary to enable his return to work. His disability discrimination claim was, however, rejected and that decision was subsequently confirmed by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

In ruling on his challenge to the latter decision, the Court of Appeal noted that neither he nor the trust had been aware that he had a medically diagnosed phobia which amounted to a disability until after he went on sick leave. His job description had been amended six times, but that had not brought about his return to work.

The Court found it deplorable that the trust had persisted in issuing job descriptions that conflicted with occupational health advice and its previous agreement that he would not be required to collect patients from their beds or return them to the ward. However, in dismissing his appeal, it ruled that such justified criticism was insufficient to establish a culpable failure to make reasonable adjustments.

The job descriptions did not exist in a vacuum and the interactions between the trust and its employee had to be considered as a whole. If he had refused to go to the ward, it was highly unlikely that he would have faced disciplinary action. After the date on which his phobia was formally diagnosed, he had never in fact been required to go into the bed bay areas of the ward.