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Mental Health and the Equality Act

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It’s a well known fact that mental health issues are capable of constituting a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 (the Act). However, to fall under the current definition of disability, the condition must have a “long-term” effect on the individual’s normal day-to-day activities. The Act provides that a condition will be regarded as long term if it has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least 12 months.

Accordingly, short term mental health issues, including conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression may not be covered by the Act and employees can find themselves without the layer of protection that the Act provides, including an obligation on the employer to make reasonable adjustments.

With statistics suggesting that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems each year, the Government is seeking to ensure that mental health issues are treated equally to physical impairments.

Last week, Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, suggested that, if elected, the Conservatives would amend the Act. Specifically, they would remove the requirement that to qualify for employment protection against discrimination on grounds of mental health an individual must have had the condition for a period of 12 months or more.

Given the prevalence of mental health issues, this announcement could be concerning for employers. Indeed, it is not unusual for employees undergoing a disciplinary or performance management process to be signed off due to stress, and the proposed changes could significantly affect the way in which employers will need to manage those employees. In light of the impact on businesses, notwithstanding the commitment from Mr Hunt, the Government would be likely to consult on any proposed changes before bringing them into effect.