Discrimination at work
Some of us experience disability discrimination at work because of our mental health. Find out about the laws that protect us from discrimination, plus where to go for support and advice.
How to challenge discrimination at work
There are a number of ways to challenge disability discrimination at work. What's best for you will depend on exactly what has happened and how you feel about it.
Usually it's a good idea try to resolve things as quickly and informally as possible. If this doesn't work, you have the option of taking a legal claim to an employment tribunal.
This page covers:
- Resolving issues informally
- Following formal procedures
- Making a legal claim to an employment tribunal
- Taking a disability discrimination claim to an employment tribunal
- Ending your dispute
In general, the stages you might go through to end a dispute could look like this:
If you can, it's usually best to resolve your problem by just talking it through. This will feel more relaxed and also helps you to keep good working relationships. Start by speaking to your colleagues, manager or human resources (HR) department as soon as possible.
If you're satisfied with the outcome at this stage, your dispute comes to an end. If not, you can continue challenging the issue.
There are different formal procedures that you may already be involved in with your employer. They may have already started:
- Absence or sickness management procedures – if you've been off sick
- Performance management or capability procedures – if they believe you've not been performing your job as well as you could
- Disciplinary procedures – if they believe you may have broken disciplinary rules
These formal procedures will often set out what you can do if you don't agree with how you've been treated. For example, you may be allowed to appeal against a decision your employer has made in one of these formal procedures. If you believe that you may have experienced discrimination, then you can raise this in your appeal.
Example of appealing against formal procedures
James experiences moderate depression and has taken several days off sick. His employer held an ‘absence management meeting’. After this, they issued him with an Improvement Notice requiring him to improve his attendance over the next 6 months.
James feels this is unfair. He appeals against the Improvement Notice.
Before going to a formal procedure, many employers have ‘grievance procedures’ in place that allow you to raise complaints about issues at work. You have the right to take a colleague or trade union representative along with you to any grievance hearing.
In this case it may help to:
- Write down what happened, how it's affecting you, and what support you want.
- Get a supporting letter about your mental health problem from your GP or other health or social care professional. This is especially helpful if your dispute is over reasonable adjustments.
- Ask for a response in writing. Always keep copies of any correspondence you send or receive, including emails.
- Get legal advice from a trade union or specialist adviser. Trade union advice may be free if you're a member, but you'll probably have to pay for specialist legal advice.
If you're satisfied with the outcome at this stage, your dispute comes to an end. If not, you can continue.
If you cannot resolve your issues within your workplace, you may decide to make a claim to an employment tribunal.
An employment tribunal makes decisions for disputes between employers and employees about employment rights. It's like a court, but not always as formal.
Before making your claim, it's important to understand every part of the process:
Before you can go to an employment tribunal, you must contact the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas). You must inform them of your intention to make a claim.
They'll offer you the chance to try and settle the dispute without going to court by using their free early conciliation service. Early conciliation can last for up to 6 weeks.
If you're satisfied with the outcome at this stage, your dispute comes to an end. If not, you can continue with a legal claim. To continue, you'll need an early conciliation certificate from Acas.
If you've not been able to resolve your dispute through early conciliation, Acas will send you an ‘early conciliation certificate’. Once you receive this, you'll have the same amount of time left to make your claim, as you did before you started conciliation.
In any event, you'll have a minimum of 1 calendar month from the date you receive your certificate, to bring your claim to a tribunal. For more information about the time limitations, see the Acas website.
Example of early conciliation
Helen's employer has discriminated against her because of her mental health problem. She knows the deadline for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal is 3 months away, minus 1 day.
This is how the events proceed in order:
- She spends 1 month trying to resolve the issue informally and considering her options. She decides she wants to take things further.
- She contacts Acas and spends another 1 month in early conciliation. The early conciliation still does not help to settle her dispute, so she decides to continue with her case.
- Acas send Helen an early conciliation certificate. By this point it's been exactly 2 months since Helen experienced the discrimination. But because the 1 month she spent in early conciliation doesn’t count, the deadline for making her claim is still 2 months away, minus 1 day.
To make your claim, you have to fill out and submit a claim form called an ET1 – you can do this online using the government's Employment Tribunals Service. The government website also has an option to download the ET1 claim form.
If you decide to take this step:
- Make sure you send the claim form within 3 months, minus 1 day of the date you experienced discrimination. This does not include time spent in early conciliation. You'll also need your early conciliation certificate. If you miss this deadline, it's unlikely that you'll be able to claim.
- Seek legal advice. It's always important to get good legal advice about your situation before going to court. For information on how to find legal help, see our list of useful contacts.
- See if you can get help and support. Taking legal action can feel complicated and stressful. You could ask a trusted friend or advocate to help you. For more information, see our pages on advocacy.
- See if you can get help paying your legal fees. To find out how you might do this, see our information on getting help with legal fees.
- Watch a case at your local tribunal. If your case is going to a full hearing, then it can be useful to watch another person's case. This helps you to understand the process before you go through it. The government website has a list of employment tribunal venues.
In most cases, you cannot make a claim if you miss the deadline. But in rare cases, the employment tribunal can extend this deadline if it is ‘just and equitable’ to do so. For example, if you have been very unwell after the discrimination.
If you want to ask for an extension, you should explain your reasons in your ET1 claim form.
If you have medical reasons for missing the deadline, ask your GP or another medical professional to provide you with a written letter. This should explain how your medical condition has affected your ability to put your claim in on time.
Taking legal action against your employer may not be straightforward, since you both have the right to appeal decisions at various stages. You may also choose to settle your case at any point. But in general, the stages you can expect are as follows:
As soon as the tribunal tell your employer about your claim, your employer has 28 days to send a written response.
If they fail to respond in writing within 28 days, then it's up to the judge to decide the outcome of the case. The outcome will be based on either:
- The issues alone raised in your claim
- The remedies alone asked for in your claim – in other words, financial compensation
- A combination of the 2 points above
The judge may also choose to extend the time for the employer to respond. But the extension will be within a certain time period.
If your employer doesn't respond at all, they might not be allowed to participate until the final hearing.
The purpose of a pre-hearing is:
- To clarify what your claim is about and what the employer's defence is.
- To consider whether your claim should proceed to a final hearing.
- To consider whether to dismiss your claim, if it does not proceed to a final hearing.
- To make orders about how your claim will progress. These are called ‘case management orders’. These orders will likely include:
- Ordering parties to provide information, like a schedule of loss showing what compensation you're claiming and why. For example, lost wages due to your discrimination.
- Ordering you to provide supporting medical records, a GP or specialist report, or an ‘impact statement’ written by yourself. If the employer is arguing that your mental health problem is not a disability, the tribunal may set another pre-hearing to consider this.
- Ordering parties to provide copies of all documents relevant to the case.
- Ordering parties to provide written witness statements from all of the people who are giving evidence.
- To set a date for the final hearing of your claim.
- To consider if any reasonable adjustments should be made to help you participate in the final hearing. For example, taking regular breaks or setting up a certain type of seating arrangement for you.
If you still work for the employer during the process, you may be offered ‘judicial mediation’. This is a type of private dispute resolution which does not involve going to a final hearing.
You and your employer both attend a tribunal where a specially trained judge helps you try to resolve your dispute. This mediation is held in private.
If you can't resolve your dispute during mediation, nothing that you or your employer has said here can be referred to at any final hearing.
Mediation can often be successful and your dispute might come to an end. If not, your claim may continue.
Disability discrimination claims are heard by a tribunal panel. This is the trial stage of your claim. This panel is usually made up of 3 people:
- 1 judge
- 2 other panel members with relevant experience of employment issues
You and your witnesses will be given the opportunity to do both:
- Present your evidence in the form of a witness statement.
- Direct the tribunal to relevant documents – such as your contract of employment, workplace policies, medical records, reports, emails and letters.
The employer or their representative will be allowed to ask you questions about your evidence – this is called ‘cross-examination’. The employer's witnesses will present their own evidence for you or your representative to cross-examine too.
People on the tribunal panel often ask their own questions to you, your employer and any witnesses.
After the hearing, the tribunal panel will decide whether you have won or lost your claim. If you win, you're usually entitled to compensation – in other words, money. Sometimes they'll make recommendations, for example that the employer makes any reasonable adjustments you've asked for.
The tribunal panel could tell you their decision either:
- At the end of the final hearing.
- At a later date, which could be weeks or sometimes months after the final hearing. This is called ‘reserving judgment’.
If you ask them to, they will always explain the reasons for their decision in writing.
If you and the employer accept the judgment and decisions, your dispute comes to an end. If not, your claim may continue.
If you've won your claim but your employer still doesn't make an acceptable offer of compensation, the tribunal will arrange a remedy hearing. This only applies for cases where you're seeking financial compensation.
In this, the tribunal will hear the evidence again and make a final decision on what the employer must pay. This is called the ‘remedy’.
If the employer accepts the remedy, your dispute comes to an end. If not, they may appeal and your claim may continue.
One way or another, your dispute will eventually come to a conclusion. This can be a difficult time, no matter what the outcome.
For example, you might:
- Feel disappointed, frustrated and angry if the outcome wasn't everything you hoped for.
- Feel satisfied and relieved with the outcome, but still overwhelmed by what you've been through.
- Have spent a lot of time and energy on your dispute – perhaps months or even years.
- Need to rebuild relationships with your employer and colleagues.
- Have already moved on from that workplace and want nothing more to do with them.
- Feel that things have not really been resolved at all. But you still might feel that it's best for you to end the dispute at this stage.
However you feel when your dispute ends, it's important to look after yourself and think about what helps you stay well. For tips and advice, see our pages on wellbeing, managing stress and being mentally healthy at work.
These are changes that:
- organisations and people providing services and public functions
- education providers like universities and colleges
- managers of properties like landlords
- clubs and associations
should make for you if you are at a major disadvantage because of your mental health problems and it is reasonable.
Examples of reasonable adjustments include:
- making changes to the way things are organised or done
- making changes to the built environment, or physical features like steps or doorways around you
- providing aids and services for you.
When someone is treated worse because of their physical or mental health condition, this is known as 'disability discrimination'.
The Equality Act is the law that explains what a disability is, and when worse treatment counts as discrimination.
Generally, you have to show that you have a disability before you can challenge worse treatment as disability discrimination. The exceptions to this are if you received worse treatment because your employer thinks you're disabled but you're not, or because of your association with a disabled person.
See our pages on disability discrimination for more information.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
The Employment Tribunal decides disputes between employers and employees about employment rights. An Employment Tribunal is like a court but not always so formal.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
A hearing is a meeting at the court in front of the judge where decisions are made about your case.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
There are many situations in which you may feel treated unfairly because of your disability, but the law only covers these types of discrimination:
- direct discrimination
- discrimination arising from disability
- indirect discrimination
- not complying with the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
In the UK, law that protects you from discrimination is called the Equality Act.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
This information was published in November 2022. We will revise it in 2025.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.