Have you heard the joke about the woman who went to the Doctors and said she felt like a pair of curtains?… The Doctor replied “Pull yourself together!”.

Well this may be a well-known gag but it was no laughing matter for the employer in a recent case – saying “pull yourself together” to an employee suffering from depression cost them £7500.

HR History

Wickers was employed as an assistant by Specsavers. Prior to her appraisal she had received warnings for her failure to comply with Specsavers absence notification procedure, lateness and a dispensing error. During her appraisal conducted by a Director, Wickers became tearful. When she said she was “struggling with depression” the Director responded by saying that he had “no sympathy for this kind of thing”. He further commented that “everyone gets depressed sometimes” and “you just have to pull yourself together”. Very understanding and empathetic!

Diagnosis

Following a number of periods of absence, another dispensing error and a further episode of lateness, the Director quizzed Wickers. She informed him that she had been diagnosed with depression and was on prescribed medication. The Director decided to commence disciplinary action against Wickers but she resigned shortly after being told it was likely she would be dismissed. Wickers then brought claims for disability discrimination at the tribunal under the Equality Act 2010.

Tribunal Outcome

The tribunal heard that Wickers had been late on the day in question because she had overslept. This was due to her medication and the effect it was having on her sleep. The tribunal also found that:

• Wicker’s depression amounted to a disability and the director’s unsympathetic approach to her condition was disability discrimination; and
• Specsavers had failed to make reasonable adjustments.

Wickers was awarded compensation totalling £7,500. An expensive mistake by the Director.

The tribunal specifically said that the “pull yourself together” comment trivialised the illness and it was offensive and humiliating – so that’s why this sort of comment should be steered cleared of.

HR Lessons

Don’t make the same mistake – the fact is that an employee who’s emotional may be suffering from depression and this can be a disability that’s protected by the Equality Act 2010. The Director may have thought she was overreacting and indeed frustrated by her failings, but nevertheless shouldn’t have said those things.

Regardless of whether or not depression had been disclosed at that time, the safest response in this situation is to use non-discriminatory statements such as: “I’m sorry you are feeling upset” and then “What do you think we could do to improve things for you?”

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