Can Exhaustion from Overwork Be a Disability? Guideline ET Ruling


Many people have highly demanding jobs that leave them feeling worn out – but can such work-related exhaustion amount to a disability? An Employment Tribunal (ET) addressed that issue in the case of an NHS consultant whose workload and other commitments were, by any standards, punishing.

On some days, the consultant worked up to 12-13 hours. His commute to work on two days a week took between two and a half and three hours, one way. He had heavy caring responsibilities for his wife, who had health difficulties, and his three young children. Symptoms arising from his exhaustion prompted numerous medical appointments and sporadic sickness absences from work.

After his employment by an NHS trust came to an end, he launched ET proceedings alleging, amongst other things, disability discrimination. At a preliminary hearing, the ET considered whether his exhaustion and the debility that it caused amounted to a disability for the purposes of Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010.

Answering that question in the negative, the ET expressed sympathy for him. It was hardly surprising that the combination of his workload, long commute and personal responsibilities had left him excessively tired and drained. However, his symptoms were no more than a normal physical and emotional reaction to his extremely demanding work-life conditions.

In finding that they did not amount to an impairment within the meaning of the Act, the ET noted that an athlete may feel progressively more tired during an endurance event and suffer symptoms similar to those the consultant described. That did not, however, make the athlete a disabled person. Although chronic exhaustion may develop into a medical condition such as myalgic encephalitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or depression, there had been no such diagnosis.

The ET further noted that he had received medical advice to take more rest and seek additional help with his caring responsibilities. Had he made reasonable changes to his extremely demanding schedule, the adverse effects on his day-to-day activities would not have been substantial. Noting that his condition significantly improved after he left the trust’s employ, the ET found that the longevity of his symptoms was directly linked to him not making such recommended lifestyle changes.

The ET was also unpersuaded that serious migraines he suffered during the relevant period had a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Even considered cumulatively, his claimed impairments did not amount to a disability for the purposes of the Act.

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