Muir V Zeneca UK Ltd  

The 13th May 2024 marked the start of mental health awareness week. It is therefore somewhat appropriate that in the recent case of Muir V Zeneca UK Ltd (2024) (2405955/2021), the courts have elaborated on how an employer should conduct and treat employee’s with mental health problems.

In the case of Muir v Zeneca UK Ltd, the tribunal held that Dr Muir, the claimant, was unfairly dismissed because the company did not intervene with the employee’s conduct before the matter underwent investigation and disciplinary action. The primary reason and rationale being that the employee’s conduct deteriorated as a result of the mental health issue.

The main facts and background to the case are that Dr Muir began employment with Astra Zeneca UK Ltd as a leading scientist in the firm’s development of a breast cancer drug. He was dismissed in 2020 without notice after a disciplinary process considered a number of allegations from colleagues of ‘repeated inappropriate conduct’ which was found ‘to amount to bullying and harassment’.

During the tribunal case it became known that Dr Muir had experienced severe depression and anxiety from as early as 2014. It was well documented with medical records and as such he was able to successfully establish a case of unfair dismissal, wrongful dismissal, and disability discrimination due to his severe anxiety and depression constituting a disability.

As a result of this decision in the employment tribunal, employers should now ensure that they:

1. Identify risk areas which contribute to workplace stress

Employers are responsible for the health and safety of their workforce; this extends to mental as well as physical health. As an employer you are required to identify hazards and take measures to prevent or reduce those risks. These components should be part of your companies usual risk assessment process.

You should ensure that your HR team, however well-resourced, engages with workplace stress at an early stage. Your HR department should also have regard to the fact that stress impacts people differently and different roles with for example more responsibility, will be a part of that.

2. Spot common signs of stress and related mental health issues and act promptly to address these concerns

Your HR team and relevant managerial staff should be well versed in recognising and spotting common signs of these sort of illnesses.

Common signals include increases levels of sickness or other absences, mood swings, becoming withdrawn from the role and losing their motivation/confidence with carrying out certain tasks. If any manager has a concern it should be reported so it can be dealt with correctly.

Managers should therefore undergo training so they are aware how they can handle sensitive or potentially difficult conversations with the staff that they manage and also that they know they can access support and guidance.

3. Only consider dismissal as a last resort

If as an employer you become aware that someone employed by you has a mental illness or is developing the same, you will need to assess their behaviour and performance by appropriately taking it into account.

As with most cases, employers should consider alternatives to help support the employee if performance becomes a problem. You are also expected to warn the employee and take reasonable steps to support them.

While stress itself is not deemed a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, it can lead to other conditions such as anxiety and depression. It can also make other conditions worse, so it is important that if the employee has a disability that you consider making reasonable adjustments and make sure that appropriate action is taken.

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