Unfair dismissal and discrimination following lengthy stress-related absence

A fire station manager was dismissed because of his “unacceptable” record of attendance. However, because the absence was linked to his disability, an employment tribunal has ruled that his dismissal was discriminatory, and unfair.

The employee was a station manager for the London Fire Brigade (LFB) and had to attend training in a fire station more than two hours away from his normal place of work. He had let the LFB know, during the recruitment process that he hoped for a vacancy near to his home in order to make his commute to work “as least impactful as possible”. He agreed to the training but said that he could not commute on a long term basis. After several months, he contacted his manager with concerns that the commute was causing his child distress as he had to leave very early for work; and asked for a transfer closer to his home. He confirmed his reason for the transfer request was that the commute was “having an impact on my own wellbeing as it is causing me distress”.

After being informed that there were no vacancies, he was signed off with depression. A medical report confirmed that the employee was under significant stress due to worry about the situation and other areas of stress relating to his close relationships. He tried to return to work after a month, asking for a phased return and shorter working days but this did not sustain his return to work and he was signed off again for two months with “low mood/depression”.

After this absence, the employee was invited to a disciplinary hearing because of his “unacceptable record of attendance” as he had “104 working days lost out of a possible 140”. The employee was not able to attend the hearing and was dismissed by letter.

The tribunal found that London Fire Commissioner discriminated against the employee by failing to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate working in another location and by subjecting him to disciplinary procedures and dismissing him.

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff in order to assist them in their role. These situations should always be handled carefully or an employer runs the risk of a discrimination claim. While employers may be able to argue that an adjustment is not reasonable for the company, this can be difficult to prove, and they will need to clearly show that they fully considered it why they reached the conclusion not to provide reasonable adjustments.

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