Wellbeing | AstraZeneca wrongly sacked Dr whose mental health impacted behaviour towards colleagues

AstraZeneca wrongly sacked Dr whose mental health impacted behaviour towards colleagues

AstraZeneca was wrong to sack a senior scientist whose mental health affected his behaviour towards colleagues, a UK employment tribunal has found.

Dr Muir, who had worked for the pharmaceutical giant since 1998, and was a leading scientist in the firm’s development of a drug called Truqap, recently approved in the US to treat some forms of breast cancer.

He was sacked in December 2020 after bosses found him guilty of “repeated inappropriate conduct” towards several colleagues “which amounts to bullying and harassment.”

Among the incidents were claims that Dr Muir displayed “inappropriate conduct during a team meeting” and “unprofessional/inappropriate business emails” , which were reportedly aggravated by his frustrations about a stressful project and lack of management support.

The employment tribunal heard that Dr Muir suffered from depression and anxiety and had previously taken extended sick leave due to his mental wellbeing.

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However, despite his history of struggling with mental health in the workplace, his sacking was apparently made despite no written complaints being made against him, and the tribunal found that the company’s internal investigators had not properly factored his mental health into their probe.

A union representative who supported Dr Muir during the investigation expressed his concerns about the manner in which Muir had been let go, writing: “JM (James Muir) has had no prior issues, no warning, this is straight to dismissal. This does not feel right... this is not how the AZ process should work.”

The tribunal found that although Dr Muir’s “overly forceful” behaviour towards colleagues was unacceptable, his conduct was “largely connected with his mental health issues rather than something which he could reasonably be expected to control.”

It was also said that “by reason of his anxiety and depression, Dr Muir was unaware as to how he was coming across in meetings.”

Employment Judge Johnson ruled: “The process could have been carried out in a more measured and thoughtful way considering the way in which Dr Muir’s mental health was impacting upon his interactions with colleagues and without any support having been provided with AZ (AstraZeneca).

“However, if this was the case, the Tribunal does not think that Dr Muir would have been dismissed. This is because once [bosses] identified the mental health issues and the role that they were likely to have played in Dr Muir’s behaviour at meetings, he could not reasonably have concluded that he had sufficient awareness to understand how he might react and how his behaviour might have affected others.

“This was not a case of the inappropriate behaviour being abusive or discriminatory and was instead a forceful outburst by a person experiencing a great deal of anxiety as described by the medical evidence and supported by management concerns raised during the hearing process.”

A spokesperson for AstraZeneca said: “We respect this ruling and we look forward to the resolution of this case for all involved.”

Compensation for Dr Muir will be decided at a later date.

Supporting employees throughout 2024 and beyond

With a recent study from Fora finding half (51%) of hybrid workers have taken time off work as a result of stress or anxiety in the past year, missing an average of 6.1 days each, it’s a more important time than ever for employers to have the necessary support and resources in place to fuel a happy workforce and support their colleagues mental health.

Below, Adrian Matthews, Head of Employee Benefits at MetLife UK, shares his tips to help employers better support their staff’s mental health:

  1. Touchpoints that work for us all – With many companies continuing to use hybrid working, a new age issue we face is the “silent” employee. These could be those who choose to come into the office on quieter days or pass on social occasions. While this may just be the personality type of certain employees, it’s important that fellow employees and employers alike should keep an eye on them. Anxiety can often manifest itself into fear or social discomfort, so providing valuable touch points and open conversation into how hybrid working is suiting them is imperative. Creating a greater connection is key, this could range from one-on-one coffee catch ups if a social event does not suit the employee, or implementing team breakfasts and lunches to solidify the company as a group or family.

  2. The importance of managers – Employees and employers can often overlook the role of the line-manager. Making sure managers model positive wellbeing behaviours and use their voice to challenge stigma can help employees to open up about their own mental health, likely sooner than they otherwise would. As an employer, making sure regular meetings for managers and their employees are in the diary is key. Moreover, the importance of managers fully understanding the support and packages provided must be reiterated either through regular emails or as part of manager training.

  3. Understand the support available – A group benefits package should provide a host of services to support employees (and their families) at their time of need, however big or small. For example, a Wellbeing Hub provided through Group Income Protection, or an Employee Assistance Programme through Group Life will greatly help employees during times of need. Contact your provider to ensure you are maximising all the help that is available. Providers often enhance or add new services to their offering, so the new year is a good time to check in with them to ensure you are maximising the support available.

With this in mind, employers should make sure these packages available are clearly signposted and accessible, this could be through a quarterly email reiterating these packages or by running through what is available at a meeting. With the growth of hybrid working, ensure you have a mix of communication channels to disseminate your messages. Also, consider that in most instances, employees will need to access information outside of working hours, so an app or hard copies can be helpful as a point of reference.

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