Manager Faces Hostile Work Environment and is Accused of Faking Mental Illness Upon Return to Work

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Photo Credits - Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

In a recent employment tribunal case, commercial manager Haley Thomas secured victory against T&R Direct Insurance. She faced a hostile work environment and accusations of faking mental illness upon her return to work. 

The tribunal ruled in favour of Thomas, highlighting the inappropriate and discriminatory treatment she endured in her return to work. Following that, this led to her constructive unfair dismissal.

The Case: Haley Thomas at T&R Direct Insurance

Return to work

Haley Thomas, a commercial manager at T&R Direct Insurance since April 2020, found herself at the centre of a distressing workplace situation. 

This comes after taking a four-week sick leave in April 2022 due to anxiety and depression. Thomas had previously enjoyed a positive work environment. She felt treated “like family” by the company owners, Justin Ward and Lee Taylor. However, her experience took a drastic turn upon her return to work.

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Upon her return to work, Thomas faced an unwelcome shift in her employers’ behaviour. 

According to her testimony during the tribunal, Lee Taylor continually disagreed with her. Further, they demeaned her in front of colleagues and accused her of faking mental illness. Justin Ward, on the other hand, reportedly shouted at her repeatedly, creating a hostile atmosphere within the workplace.

Thomas’ Return to Work Hostile Work Environment and Insensitive Comments

The tribunal heard troubling evidence of repeated insensitive comments made by Lee Taylor regarding Haley Thomas’s eating habits. 

Taylor even suggests that she would be “the size of a house” if she did not stop eating. These hurtful comments not only contributed to a hostile work environment but also had a tangible impact on Thomas. Further, it caused her to avoid eating lunch at work.

Moreover, Thomas feels that her input and suggestions are no longer of value, in comparison to before her sickness absence.

She claimed to have been given additional work without the promised pay rise, further contributing to her distress. The unpleasant environment created by the employers significantly affected Thomas’s mental health. Ultimately, leading to her being signed off work with depression and anxiety in July 2022.

The Judgement: Constructive Unfair Dismissal and Discrimination

The Southampton employment tribunal rules in favour of Thomas, stating that she experiences constructively unfair dismissal.  

The judgement highlighted the discriminatory treatment she endured, emphasising that the two company owners subjected her to less favourable, discriminatory treatment and bullied and harassed her due to her disability.

The tribunal concluded that the change in attitude towards Thomas after her return to work was a direct result of her disability-related absence. 

The employers regarded her as a less useful and reliable member of staff and demonstrated insensitivity towards her mental health difficulties. The cumulative effect of their behaviour created an unwelcoming and hostile environment for Thomas’ return to work.

Impact on Mental Health and Subsequent Resignation

The tribunal took into account the evidence provided by Thomas and former employee David Handley, who corroborated her claims. 

Handley states that both Taylor and Ward had, on several occasions, mentioned that Thomas was “faking” her conditions to avoid work. The tribunal found this behaviour to be a significant factor in the deterioration of Thomas’s mental health, leading to her signing off work for an extended period and, eventually, her resignation in July 2023.

This case serves as a stark reminder to employers about the importance of providing proper support for employees’ return to work after a period of sickness absence. There is a need for employers to treat returning employees as assets rather than problems. Employers should stay in touch with employees during their sick leave, understand the reasons for their absence, and conduct detailed return-to-work interviews.

Further, it is important to use respectful language and behaviour towards employees. 

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Ensuring a Smooth and Supportive Return to Work

Making negative personal comments, especially about someone with mental health issues, can create an unpleasant business culture and potentially lead to claims of harassment. Justifying such comments as ‘banter’ will not be a valid excuse.

The victory of Haley Thomas in the employment tribunal sheds light on the detrimental impact of toxic and discriminatory treatment on an employee’s mental health. 

Employers must be diligent in fostering a supportive and inclusive workplace culture, especially in employees’ return to work after sickness absence. The case serves as a precedent, urging employers to reevaluate their approach towards employees’ well-being and take proactive measures to prevent constructive unfair dismissal and discrimination claims.

Redmans Solicitors and their team of expert employment lawyers can offer advice and guidance on employment law matters, including discrimination and harassment. Contact their employment law specialists today!

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