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Why bosses should consider whether mental health is a factor in misconduct cases

If an employee’s conduct comes under scrutiny – particular if that member of staff has a long and largely unblemished record – it is important for bosses to ask themselves whether mental health could be a factor.

A judgement in the case of Mr G Plowright v Sky-in-Home Services Ltd was published in January 2020 considered the case of an employee who was dismissed for breaching health and safety regulations. The employment tribunal found that the engineer had been discriminated against on grounds of disability and unfairly dismissed.

Background

Mr Plowright worked as an engineer installing Sky equipment at customer properties. He was dismissed for working up a ladder without any safety equipment other than a hard hat.

He was instructed to stop working by a manager and called into a meeting the same day.  When asked why he had not been complying with regulations, Mr Plowright explained that his mind had been distracted. He was he was going through a divorce, his partner and daughter were moving out of the family home that day and he had been upset by a conversation with the customer, who had been talking about her own daughter.

Sky referred Mr Plowright to occupational health and was found to be suffering symptoms of reactive depression. He had also been diagnosed with mood disorder and anxiety by his GP. Consequently, he was declared unfit for work, but was nevertheless dismissed from his job.

Mr Plowright took his case to the employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. The hearing in December found in his favour.

The judgment states that “in the particular circumstances of this case, the disadvantage suffered by the claimant in losing his job outweighed the reasonable needs of the respondent’s business”.

Comment

Key to this case is the fact that Mr Plowright’s employer was made aware of his mental health before making the decision to dismiss him: Mr Plowright had shared his depression diagnosis with his line manager in the previous March. Mr Plowright had appealed the company’s decision to dismiss him but was unsuccessful. The company insisted that he had worked safely on other jobs that day and had also failed to seek any support from his GP or from Occupational Health.

The assumption by the employer  that Mr Plowright was not entitled to special consideration because he had not sought support was clearly flawed. Turning Sky’s argument on its head, Mr Plowright claimed that the company erred because it failed to consider his mental health, amounting to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The tribunal also heard that.

Mr Plowright had had an unblemished career with the company spanning 11 years. The tribunal found that his mental health condition meant he had not been able to carry out his normal working activities and that, because the condition was likely to recur beyond 12 months, he was considered disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 definition.

A hearing on 18th February will consider compensation.