A former service adviser at car dealer Charles Hurst has been awarded almost £12,000 after her workplace treatment seriously “exacerbated” her mental health problems.
Marie Claire McLaughlin, 31, from Dundrum in Co Down, suffered absences due to bouts of depression and panic attacks.
She applied to reduce her hours at the Belfast-based firm to 40 per week but an industrial tribunal found her request was not appropriately considered.
Charles Hurst said it vehemently opposed all forms of unfair discrimination.
The tribunal said: “It was consistently dealt with as an application for flexible working, with an emphasis on the needs of the business. There was little or no focus on the needs of the claimant.”
The panel awarded Ms McLaughlin £11,840 following a case in which she was assisted by the Equality Commission.
It said the time frame for dealing with her request was long drawn out – it took at least four-and-a-half months too long and stretched over a year.
Had the employer focused correctly on making “reasonable adjustments” available under legislation covering disability discrimination and taken a proactive approach she would have had the reduced hours sought earlier, the tribunal added.
Its decision stated: “The treatment which the claimant received at work (the failure to grant her a reasonable adjustment in terms of allowing her to work reduced hours) inevitably compounded and exacerbated to a serious degree any pre-existing condition, and was a major cause of her mental health issues at the relevant time.”
Ms McLaughlin believed a reduction in hours would have helped her to cope better and improved her performance at work.
She said: “My employer didn’t seem to grasp how serious an impact this was having on my life, inside and outside of work.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, the stress of the whole situation did not help my mental health, it just added to the pressure.”
A spokesman for Charles Hurst said the case drew attention to key learning issues.
He added: “Charles Hurst Group vehemently opposes all forms of unlawful or unfair discrimination and notes that the tribunal acknowledged that the company did not discriminate against Ms McLaughlin on the grounds of her disability.
“The tribunal also ruled, unanimously, that neither did the company victimise nor harass the claimant.
“We fully accept, however, the tribunal’s one ruling that the length of time which was taken to implement a reduction in working hours was too long and we deeply regret any distress this caused.”
Dr Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, said the issue was one of increasing concern.
“There is a need for employers to be more pro-active in addressing issues around mental health.
“Proper – and timely – management of this issue should be an important focus for all employers.”