A hairdresser has been awarded €7,000 after a salon decided to fire her because she suffered from anxiety.
The dismissal was deemed to constitute discrimination on grounds of disability by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
An employment law expert has warned that businesses need to find better ways to support workers with mental health difficulties in light of such decisions.
An adjudication hearing of the WRC heard that the complainant had been working as an apprentice hairdresser at the salon for around seven months when she was diagnosed with anxiety in April 2017.
She sent a text message to the owner of the salon, explaining that she had been experiencing panic attacks and had been advised by a GP to take some time off work.
She indicated to her employer that she had been prescribed medication for the condition, and that she would have a sick cert when she returned to work four days later.
The owner replied by saying that she “didn’t do” sick days.
Upon her return to work, the complainant felt that she was being ignored. Two weeks later, she was taken aside by the owner and told that she was a liability. The business could not be run around her, the owner said.
The complainant asked what she had done wrong, and was told that the salon and its clients had no problem with her, but her “head was all over the place”. She understood this to refer to her anxiety.
The hairdresser was asked to get her belongings and leave. She told the WRC that she was physically upset and crying as she passed by staff and clients on her way out of the salon.
She was left “badly scarred” by the experience and had felt unable to return to hairdressing as a result. She had since resumed an old job in a factory where she has no contact with the public.
In her evidence, the salon owner claimed there were longstanding performance issues with the complainant. This was denied and WRC Adjudication Officer Kevin Baneham noted that the only documentary evidence presented in this regard was a self-assessment sheet completed by the complainant herself.
The former employee told the WRC that the low marks she had given herself in that exercise was a reflection of her low self-confidence rather than any deficiency in terms of performance.
The owner said it was a “fabrication” to say that the complainant had been dismissed due to her mental health. She said the salon stylist has depression and has worked with her for 14 years.
However, Mr Baneham concluded that the complainant had been dismissed because she was imputed to have a disability – anxiety – and said the effects of this discrimination warranted an award of €7,000.
Employment law specialist Jason O’Sullivan of JOS Solicitors said employers are obliged to make “reasonable accommodation” for employees who have a disability, including mental-health conditions.
“There does appear to be a need for employers to start finding better ways to support employees who are experiencing mental-health difficulties,” he said.
“Until employers start taking such affirmative action, they will continue to fall foul of the law.”