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.
Experiencing discrimination at work
This page covers examples of:
- Rowan has bipolar disorder. They ask their employer if they can apply for a new role doing work they feel more able to do. Their employer says they cannot apply because of their mental health problem. This is an example of direct discrimination.
- Minoo does not have a mental health problem, but looks after her aunt who has mental health problems. Sometimes she needs to take time off to look after her aunt, or feels overwhelmed at work because of her caring role. Her employer treats her worse because of this. This is direct discrimination – discrimination by association.
- Najma does not have a mental health problem, but her employer treats her worse than her colleague because he thinks she has a mental health problem. This is likely to be direct discrimination – discrimination by perception.
- Aidan applies for a job and finds that his last employer gave a reference. This included negative comments about Aidan's mental health problem. The last employer has discriminated against Aidan, even though they no longer employ him. This is because the reference comes from, and is closely connected to, their former employment relationship. This is discrimination arising from disability.
- Sid has depression. He has worked for the same employer for 2 years, who knows he has depression. Recently, Sid has had 3 periods of absence because of his depression. His employer disciplines him because of how many absences he has had.
Sid has been treated unfairly – not directly because of his disability, but because of something related to his disability. In this case, it's the time he's taken off sick. This may be discrimination arising from Sid's disability.
But the way the employer treated Sid will not count as discrimination arising from disability if they can prove either of these points:
- The way they treated Sid was for a good reason, and appropriate and necessary
- They did not know, or could not reasonably have known, that Sid had a disability
Sarah's employer decides that all staff must start a new shift pattern which involves working late in the evening. All staff must accept this. But Sarah takes medication for schizoaffective disorder which makes her feel very sleepy in the evenings, so she isn't able to work late shifts.
This is likely to be indirect discrimination, as it puts Sarah at a disadvantage.
But it will not be discrimination if her employer is able to justify the new shift pattern for all employees, by showing that it is both:
- For a good reason
- Appropriate and necessary
Examples of indirect discrimination are often situations that can be improved thanks to the employer's duty to make reasonable adjustments. In this example, Sarah's employer may be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments, such as allowing her to remain on the daytime shift pattern.
Sylvie works in an office. She has depression and has been absent from work for several periods in the last couple of years because of this.
Her employer has to make some staff redundant. They want to consider past absences when deciding who to make redundant. This puts Sylvie at quite a large disadvantage compared to her colleagues.
It may be reasonable for Sylvie's employer to ignore her disability-related absences when deciding who to make redundant. This is an example of their duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Sylvie is also finding it difficult to cope with the uncertainty and feels distressed at work. She's taking part in a supported employment scheme from a workplace mental health support scheme. Her employer lets her make private phone calls to her support worker during the working day as another reasonable adjustment.
If Sylvie's employer knew about her disability, but did not consider making any changes to make things fairer for her, this could have been an example of failing to comply with the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Read more about reasonable adjustments you can request in the workplace.
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
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.
This information was published in November 2022. We will revise it in 2025.
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