In the recent case of Herry -v- Dudley Metropolitan Council 2016, the EAT has given some useful guidance on when workplace stress can amount to a disability. In general, ‘stress’ will not be a disability without more, i.e. as in other contexts the individual must show that there is a mental impairment which has a substantial, long term adverse impact on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The case concerned a teacher who made 90 different allegations against his employer, including disability discrimination. The tribunal concluded that he was not disabled at the material time and consequently his claim failed. While the EAT allowed his appeal in part insofar as it related to a costs order that had been made against him, his appeal against the tribunal’s finding on disability was unsuccessful.

The EAT relied on previous case law to draw a distinction between individuals suffering from a mental illness such as clinical depression (which is clearly an impairment), and someone who is also suffering from symptoms of low mood and anxiety but as a result of “adverse life events” such as problems at work. The line between the two is blurred but generally a reaction to adverse circumstances is not long-lived.

In this case, the EAT added that there is “a class of case where a reaction to circumstances perceived as adverse can become entrenched; where the person concerned will not give way or compromise over an issue at work, and refuses to return to work”, yet in other respects suffers no or little apparent adverse effect on normal day to day activities. In such a case, the tribunal is not bound to find that there is an impairment: “unhappiness with a decision or a colleague, a tendency to nurse grievances, or a refusal to compromise… are not of themselves mental impairments: they may simply reflect a person’s character or personality”. In such cases the tribunal should consider the medical evidence very carefully, along with any evidence showing an adverse effect “over and above an unwillingness to return to work until an issue is resolved to the employee’s satisfaction”.