An EE call centre agent with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who was told to ‘get a grip’ by her manager, was discriminated against because of reasons arising from her disability.
Disability and mental health
The Cardiff employment tribunal found that a line manager’s comments and behaviour when claimant Bethan Oakley was late returning from a lunch break caused her to become “extremely distressed”, despite his knowledge of her disability.
Oakley began working as a customer services representative at the telecom company’s offices in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, in October 2013.
In 2019, Gareth Roberts became Oakley’s line manager. She informed him that she had been attending counselling sessions via EE’s health and wellbeing provider. Her treatment notes confirmed she had been suffering with PTSD following the death of her father, which she had witnessed and to whom had delivered CPR. She regularly had nightmares about her father’s death, often became upset and overwhelmed at small things and cried for no reason.
At the tribunal it was accepted by Roberts that he understood and was aware of her mental health conditions, which amounted to a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
On 27 September 2019, Oakley accompanied a colleague to a sickness review meeting for moral support. The meeting was with Roberts and lasted two hours – an hour over what Oakley had expected. She missed her lunch break as a result.
As the canteen had closed by the time the meeting concluded, Roberts allowed her to take 30 minutes to get lunch off site.
When she returned, she went to her desk with her food. EE’s office had a policy that employees were not allowed to eat at their desks, but Oakley wanted to go through the callbacks and emails she had missed. Roberts told her she wasn’t allowed to eat at her desk and to go to a break out room to finish her lunch.
After no more than five minutes, Roberts entered the break out room to tell Oakley she was late. The claimant alleged he was aggressive towards her and stood over her while she cleared the table. He told her they were very busy and that she was in the break out room not doing her job.
‘Get a grip’
The claimant became upset and began to cry. She said she did not like the way Roberts was speaking to her and that she had already apologised for being late.
At that point, Roberts told her to “get a grip” and to “come on”. He told the tribunal that this latter comment was to reduce the tension in the room and accepted he could see she was upset. The claimant felt his behaviour was humiliating, which Roberts disputed at the tribunal.
Oakley returned to her desk and Roberts continued to argue with her about the fact that she had been late and that eating at desks was not allowed. When he left her desk after Oakley she did not want to speak to him, Oakley began to shake and had difficulty breathing. She told the tribunal this had been a panic attack.
She went into another break out room to calm down and a colleague, along with Roberts, entered. She told Roberts she did not want to speak to him and he said he wanted her back online in five minutes. The claimant said she would not be able to as she was too upset, at which point Roberts said she would have to take sick leave if she could not return to work. She left her shift early.
A few days later, Oakley sent a resignation letter to EE stating, “I was humiliated in front of everyone, being harassed and bullied into experiencing the worse panic attack of my life, something that I have never had happen to me previously in work”.
On 7 October 2019, after having had an email from EE that invited her to discuss the issues raised in her letter, she retracted her resignation and said she may have acted too hastily. She raised a grievance that suggested Roberts had harassed her and had “historical cases of abuse/harassment of other female staff with mental health issues/vulnerabilities in the workplace which have been covered up/neglected”. She also alleged she had been denied first aid care when she had a panic attack, but evidence given in the tribunal hearing suggested that she turned down first aid when it was offered.
Oakley refused to return to work until the issues were addressed and Roberts had received disciplinary action.
The respondent treated the claimant unfavourably by Mr Roberts expecting the claimant to resume work in circumstances where she had demonstrated, and continued to demonstrate, symptoms of distress and panic attack and an inability to work” – Employment Judge Havard
EE’s investigation concluded that Roberts’ actions were not discriminatory nor did they amount to harassment.
It partially upheld the claimant’s grievance about the “get a grip” comment and offered an apology.
The claimant resigned after finding a new job in December. In her resignation letter she suggested that the grievance outcome letter was inaccurate and that she was not given a chance to rebut the statements made by Roberts during the investigation.
In the tribunal’s judgment last month, Employment Judge Havard said: “[The tribunal is] satisfied that the respondent treated the claimant unfavourably as a result of the way in which Mr Roberts spoke to, and behaved towards, the claimant. Such conduct not only caused the claimant to exhibit symptoms of distress/panic attack which led to her being unable to continue to work on the afternoon of 27 September 2019 but he continued to talk to her in an unacceptable way during the time that the claimant was exhibiting symptoms of distress.
“The tribunal also considered that the respondent treated the claimant unfavourably by Mr Roberts expecting the claimant to resume work in circumstances where she had demonstrated, and continued to demonstrate, symptoms of distress and panic attack and an inability to work.”
It agreed that the way she had acted arose as a consequence of her disability, which EE and Roberts had been aware of.
“It must have been evident to him that the claimant was a vulnerable individual. However, it was significant that, whilst he admitted that he knew the claimant was disabled, Mr Roberts stated that he would treat every employee under his leadership in exactly the same way,” the judgment added.
The tribunal upheld Oakley’s claim of constructive dismissal, wrongful dismissal, disability discrimination and disability-related harassment. Claims of sex harassment and victimisation were dismissed.
Compensation will be determined at a later hearing.
EE told Personnel Today it did not have a written statement in response to the tribunal’s findings.