Anxiety & depression in the workplace – is it always a disability?

How should they deal with anxiety or depression when it occurs?

If you are an employer, are you aware of how common anxiety and depression may be in the workplace? The number of mental health related illnesses in NHS staff last year doubled since 2010; on average in the UK during 2013/14, 23 days were lost for each case of stress, depression or anxiety; four in ten adults experienced anxiety about work in 2014. These are all statistics that, whilst not necessarily a perfect match for your employees, should get you thinking about mental health and how you cope with it.

Statistics can be misleading, though they could indicate an increase in awareness as opposed to any increase in actual cases. Staff may feel more comfortable than they have in the past talking about mental health issues, rather than the incidence of them increasing.

But with growing concern comes an onus on you, the employer, to be prepared to manage employees suffering from mental health issues, especially if they are work related. And in this event, the first thing you may start to think – should I treat staff suffering from anxiety or depression as if they were disabled under the law? Would this impact how you deal with certain aspects of employment such as capability, performance, or even dismissal?

It’s a tricky question for any employer, so how should it be dealt with? One recent Employment Appeal Tribunal case has highlighted this issue, namely; is anxiety or depression always counted as a disability in employment law?

Are anxiety and depression always disabilities in employment law?

Saad vs. University Hospital Southampton heard claims from a Mr. Saad, who believed he had been discriminated against because of an anxiety disability which left him unable to read necessary text books, or even communicate with other staff members effectively; something that meant his contract was not renewed by the hospital.

He was unsuccessful in his claim, the judge deciding that under current equality legislation he was not in fact classed as disabled. He was still able to carry out simple day to day activities outside of work; getting dressed, traveling to work etc., it was only activities surrounding his workplace that left him anxious.

Whilst this decision was quite straightforward, cases are rarely this clear-cut when it comes to anxiety and depression. It’s important to understand that this isn’t an automatic precedent on which to fall back on, as when it happens to a member of your staff the situation may be totally different.
As an employer you need to take each case on an individual basis. Mental illness is something that can obviously be a disability for some people, especially when it affects their everyday life.

How to handle anxiety or depression in your workplace

So, what should you do as an employer?

First off, don’t panic or jump to conclusions. Take each case on an individual basis, as both anxiety and depression are more complex than many people realise and can be set off by many different triggers – and not necessarily ones you’d expect.

Think about what the long term impact of the illness would be on the individual, what might they have to stop doing that they could have done before? How might the condition fluctuate? If you can’t answer these questions yourself, see if you can seek medical advice to inform any important judgements. After all, unless you’re a trained psychiatrist, you aren’t going to understand the best way to deal with it!
Everyone who suffers anxiety or depression reacts to the illnesses differently. So (again) don’t panic about the first instance, as it may never happen again. Therefore it’s all the more important to get them settled back into their working routine as soon as possible if it’s an isolated incident.

In order to rehabilitate your employees more effectively, having an open-door policy on the subject of mental health is always a prudent step. People with anxiety often feel that it’s a stigmatising illness, so making them feel that it’s OK to talk about it is a step towards getting them back on their feet – pointing them in the direction of relevant health services if needs be.

If, however, it becomes a recurring problem, it may be time to consider the health issue a disability in the workplace.

Should this happen, you’ll need to make reasonable adjustments so the employee can still conduct their job as effectively as possible. You’ll need to think about how their anxiety or depression affects them; do they have trouble leaving their house? If so, perhaps suggest they work from home for a short period. Or you could offer more flexible working hours, so that if they take a bit longer to ‘get going’ in the morning, you can still give them a chance to work when they feel they can.

Mental health may be more understood generally than ever before, but this doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to deal with. It’s perfectly understandable that an employer may not know how to cope when an employee comes to them with a mental health issue; but as long as you treat them reasonably and fairly, and remember not to panic, you should be able to help them get back to work much more effectively.

Kirsty Senior is Co-Founder and Director of citrusHR, the refreshingly simple HR software and support service for small business.