Depression and anxiety can affect 1 in 4 adults in the UK each year, and can be potentially debilitating illnesses. But when does an illness become a disability? And how does that affect employers?

It certainly seems to be becoming more prevalent. The number of cases in the NHS since 2010 where employees have been off sick due to mental health issues has doubled. On average in the UK during 2013/14, 23 days were lost for each case of stress, depression or anxiety, and a YouGov poll in 2014 stated that four in ten adults experience anxiety about work.

Of course, any statistics about the growth of mental health issues have to be seen in the light of increased awareness of them. Staff may well feel more comfortable than they have in the past to come forward about potential problems, as opposed to any increase in stress or anxiety in the workplace.

However, with growing concern comes an increasing onus on employers to address these issues. But does it always impact on every aspect of employment; even how they deal with performance, or even dismissal?

One such case has drawn attention to this question. Is anxiety or depression always counted as a disability in employment law?

When anxiety and depression aren’t a disability

The case heard was Saad vs. University Hospital Southampton, with claims that Mr. Saad had been discriminated against because of his disability when his contract was not renewed because anxiety and depression were affecting his ability to work.

Here the judge decided the decision was sound, Mr. Saad not actually being classed as disabled under current equality legislation. The reason for this is that he was still able to carry out simple day to day activities; like getting dressed or traveling to work. Mr. Saad’s anxiety and depression, in this case, only affected his ability to read medical textbooks and interact with colleagues.

It’s probably a good thing for employers to hear, that it’s not always clear-cut when it comes to anxiety and depression being a disability. But it’s important that they don’t just see this as an automatic precedent for any situation they come across.

Clearly, mental illness can in some cases be a disability if it affects the way an employee lives their everyday life. However, each case should be considered on an individual basis, taking into account the longer term impact,, what day to day tasks they can and can’t do, or how the condition may fluctuate.

When it comes to mental health conditions levels of depression and anxiety can vary considerably. It’s important, therefore, to analyse each case carefully, seeking out as much medical evidence as possible to inform any important judgements; such as whether a condition is classed as a disability.

So what should employers do when they encounter anxiety or depression in their workplace?

How to manage anxiety and depression in the workplace

First off, don’t panic and don’t jump to conclusions about them. Both anxiety and depression are more complex than many people think, and can be set off by any number of triggers, not necessarily ones you’d even expect. And it’s also more common than you may realise.

Everyone that suffers from these conditions will also react differently, so just because it happens once, doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll happen to them again. So it’s all the more important to help employees get back to work as quickly as possible should they be affected by anxiety or depression; if it’s an isolated incident.

However, if it becomes a recurring problem, this is when you may need to consider it as a disability.

As with any disability in the workplace, you’ll need to make reasonable adjustments so they can still do their job as effectively as possible. If they have trouble leaving the house, for example, perhaps suggest they work from home for a bit if possible? Or provide them with flexible working hours, particularly if the condition means they take longer to ‘get going’ in the morning.

Mental health is more understood than ever before, but it’s still a difficult area for employers to get their head around. However, it can be handled in the workplace as long as they remember to treat employees reasonably and fairly, and remember not to panic should anxiety or depression become an issue for any member of staff.

What’s most important, for them and for you too, is to get them back into a normal working routine within as reasonable time-frame as possible. In order to do this, it’s essential to offer an open-door policy for the discussion of mental health issues, people who have anxiety often have the feeling that it is stigmatising. If they are more willing to discuss any issues they are having, then you can get started on helping them get back on their feet sooner, pointing them in the direction of relevant health and support services as necessary.

By Georgina Read, Director and Co-Founder at citrusHR