'Treated like a drama queen' | £4.6m payout for council worker sacked during Grenfell Tower PTSD battle

£4.6m payout for council worker sacked during Grenfell Tower PTSD battle

A council worker who lost her job during a battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the Grenfell Tower disaster has been awarded a record £4.6million by an employment tribunal.

Rachael Wright-Turner successfully sued the London Borough of Hammersmith for disability discrimination and harassment after being dismissed from her £125,000-a-year role in 2018, resulting in a six-year legal battle that has now resulted in the record compensation figure.

Ms Wright-Turner, 52, was sacked from her post as director of public service reform while taking time off with PTSD, which she had developed while employed at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, as an Humanitarian Assistance Lead Officer, supporting those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

The tragedy, which occurred in June 2017, claimed the lives of 72 people.

The tribunal heard how Ms Wright-Turner, who also had ADHD, began to exhibit symptoms of PTSD in August 2017 and experienced a panic attack later that month which she reported to her employer.

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Ms Wright-Turner moved to Hammersmith and Fulham council later that year but, in May 2018, she was signed off work after attending a meeting with superiors at a pub, to discuss her wellbeing.

However, discussions during the meeting resulted in her PTSD being triggered, resulting in flashbacks, a panic attack and hyperventilating. She was taken to hospital.

The tribunal heard that, following the incident at the pub, some managers had the “mistaken belief” that Ms Wright-Turner was drunk.

She was also accused of not disclosing her ADHD during the recruitment process

She was dismissed from her position while on sick leave, with a letter stating her probationary period would not be extended. She was not invited to a formal meeting to discuss her potential dismissal on performance grounds.

The tribunal found that, in Ms Wright-Turner's dismissal letter, “the absence of any reference to the claimant’s sickness absence or the conditions which she relies on as disabilities, was a deliberate omission to avoid any inference that this decision was in any way connected with the claimant’s mental health or related sickness absence.”

The panel ruled that “the obvious fact was that the claimant’s sickness absence was a factor.”

Employment Judge Khan ruled: “We find that dismissal was unfavourable treatment which was related to the claimant’s disability-related sickness absence.

“We find that the reason why the respondents dismissed the claimant [Ms Wright-Turner] without any formal process was because she was on sick leave.

“She was neither warned that she was at risk of dismissal nor given any opportunity to make representations before this decision was taken. Nor was she given any opportunity to appeal.”

The judge added: “Had the claimant remained at work, it is likely the claimant would have had the opportunity to address any concerns about... her performance and the respondent would have been required to identify which areas of the claimant’s performance required improvement together with agreed objectives and timelines. None of this happened because the claimant was on sick leave and the prognosis remained unclear.”

Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, Ms Wright-Turner said: “I don't think they understood how closely I'd been working with the families in the aftermath of Grenfell. They treated my PTSD as if I was acting like some sort of drama queen.”

She added: “From the public's point of view this award will seem a huge amount, but I would give every penny of this award back for it not to have happened – I thought I would just leave with a redundancy payment, but they wanted me to leave without a penny.

The London Borough Hammersmith and Fulham is set to appeal the compensation figure, which it claims is “vastly excessive, disputed and highly unprecedented”.

Key findings around mental health in the workplace

Mental health charity Mind recently commissioned a Censuswide poll of more than 5,000 people across the UK, which returned some concerning results specifically related to discussing mental wellbeing at work.

It found that seven in ten employees (67% full time and 69% part time) say that they feel the need to put a brave face on things when asked about their mental health.

Half (47% full time and 54% part time) report that the reason is because bigger things are going on in the world right now and they don't wish to be a burden, whilst a quarter of full time employees (27%) and a third of part time employees (35%) don’t believe that people really want to know how they are.

A quarter (26% full time and 27% part time) say they fear being judged if they open up. As a result they are feeling withdrawn, isolated and less able to socialise.

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The biggest impact on employee mental health is the cost of living crisis, with 52% of full time employees and 59% of part time employees saying it is affecting them, but work also plays a role, causing mental health challenges for 40% of full time workers and 30% of part time.

When asked how they are the phrase ‘Good thanks, and you?’ is often wheeled out to deflect, by 35% full time employees and 38% part time, with ‘Fine, thanks’ a popular choice for 28% of full time employees and 37% part time.

Half of employees (46% full time and 48% part time) believe that mental health is a taboo subject, demonstrating the need for employee wellbeing schemes to help normalise speaking about mental health, and opportunities for employees to open up.

Employees putting on a brave face too often

Dr Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive of Mind, said: “Our survey highlights that too often, we put a brave face on and tell people we’re fine when we’re not because we’re worried about being a burden during difficult times. But bottling things up is only making things worse. Talking about our mental health can help us feel less alone, more able to cope, and encouraged to seek support if we need to.”

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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