Number of disability discrimination cases growing eight times faster than other tribunal claims

Employment lawyers attribute phenomenon to increased awareness of how mental ill-health impacts individuals 

The number of disability discrimination claims brought before employment tribunals rose to 6,550 in 2018, a 37 per cent increase on the previous year, according to new figures. 

The research, obtained by Fox & Partners through analysis of Ministry of Justice data, revealed the number of disability discrimination claims rose more than eight times faster than the growth in all tribunal claims.

The total number of claims at employment tribunals increased by 4 per cent to reach 178,990 last year.  

Fox & Partners said the rise in disability discrimination claims could be driven by the increased willingness of workers to bring cases related to mental health issues to tribunals. The firm highlighted the rising number of claims related to the impact of high levels of stress and depression on individuals’ working lives. 

Ivor Adair, partner at Fox & Partners, said discrimination claims related to mental ill-health were “fast becoming a new area of friction between employees and employers”. 

“Workers are now facing a range of increased pressures impacting their mental health [and] employers need to ensure they handle the pressures facing their employees in the correct way,” Adair said.

“Improved training among managers in dealing with mental illness can help them reduce the likelihood of claims by increasing awareness and helping create ways to ameliorate them.” 

Lynne Adams, associate at Hewitsons, said she was not surprised by the rise in disability discrimination claims as she had seen a significant change in how depression and other mental health issues had been in discussed in a workplace context.

While she had not herself experienced a notable rise in tribunal claims related to disability discrimination, she told People Management she had seen a rise in stress-related queries from HR departments. 

“HR teams are getting much better at identifying when issues may be related to mental health and are therefore dealing with the issues before they reach tribunal stage,” Adams said. “More broadly, though, these figures are not surprising given the raised awareness in recent years of how mental health can impact someone’s working life.”

Many individuals in the financial services sector face a particular toll on their mental health, said Fox & Partners, given the often lengthy working hours and tight deadlines. The rollout of the Senior Managers Regime in March 2016, which made managers more personally accountable for wrongdoing within their firms, was also attributed to increasing levels of stress. 

The number of stress-related absences in financial services was higher than in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the firm added. 

Fox & Partners also noted that the latest data from the Health and Safety Executive revealed the number of working days lost per worker due to stress rose in the financial services sector to an average of 0.53 between 2014-15 and 2016-17, compared to 0.48 between 2007-08 and 2009-10.

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, agreed an increasing awareness of mental health and how this affected individual productivity was probably contributing to the increase in disability discrimination claims, as employees become aware their mental ill-health could be classed as a disability under the Equality Act.  

He added that unlike unfair dismissal claims, employees did not need to meet a minimum service requirement in order to bring a disability discrimination claim to a tribunal. 

“From day one, this gives a powerful enforcement mechanism that is being increasingly relied on against any poor treatment in the workplace,” Willis said. “As tribunal claim numbers go up, more and more individuals are going to become aware of this enforcement route through the media, advisory bodies such as Acas or their colleagues who have undertaken this process.”

Fox & Partners added the abolition of tribunal fees in July 2017 also led to a wave of tribunal claims. The number of claims related to disability discrimination increased by 99 per cent over five years, up from 3,294 in 2012-13.