The decision in the recent case of Taplin v Freeths (www.gov.uk/employment-tribunal-decisions/mr-mj-taplin-v-freeths-llp-2602284-slash-2018) is surprising at first glance. Here, the Employment Tribunal ruled that a partner in a law firm who had control over the hours he worked, was ambitious and successful, and had a very strong work ethic, should have been protected from burning himself out by working too hard. In fact, they went as far as concluding that the firm had discriminated against him on grounds of disability by not supporting him properly to recover from the illness caused by his ‘workaholism’.
“Surely successful, highly paid professionals and managers should be expected to manage their workload and take responsibility for their own mental and physical wellbeing?” I hear you ask. Apparently not according to this case.
The judge was struck by the “lack of real engagement with the issues” by the partnership and noted the absence of a “holistic approach” to supporting Mr Taplin in his recovery from his serious mental illness.
Although the decision is fact-specific and it remains to be seen whether it is challenged on appeal, there are some sobering lessons we can learn from the (very long) judgement in this case:
- Declining mental health, even in someone with no previous history of mental illness, can be so serious that it gives an employee protected legal status against being dismissed or treated unfavourably, no matter how senior they are in a business.
- Where there are red flags that might indicate someone is struggling such as a change in behaviour or working excessive hours these should not be ignored. Prompt intervention is needed to make sure that employees are not overloaded and there aren’t other factors affecting their health.
- Where someone has suffered from “burn out” because of their work, a properly thought-out and agreed return to work plan is key to making sure that they do not relapse.
- Phrases like “We didn’t know how bad things were” or “we didn’t like to ask” will not impress Employment Tribunals. It is becoming increasingly important for employers to engage with employees about their health and well-being so as to get a good understanding of any problems at an early stage and take appropriate steps to address them. This can be hugely challenging when someone is off sick, is unwilling to engage, or exhibiting difficult behaviours, but there must be clear evidence that there have been efforts to engage in a supportive way.
In a time when many people are continuing to work from home and face to face contact is limited, businesses will have to think outside of the box to make sure they are supporting everyone in their teams appropriately and nipping issues such as overworking and deteriorating mental wellbeing in the bud.
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