Refusing to pick up sweaty gym towels and discrimination
A recent employment tribunal case has considered whether a requirement for a personal trainer to pick up sweaty gym towels amounted to disability discrimination.
Ms A Burton V Nuffield Health V 2300147/2019
In this case, it was accepted by Nuffield Health that Ms Burton suffered from a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Ms Burton had generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and it was triggered by issues of cleanliness and hygiene which manifested in panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, upset, loss of sleep and disturbed sleeping.
Upon starting her role with Nuffield Health, Ms Burton had an occupational health assessment in which she disclosed her condition and its impact. She was advised by occupational health not to undertake hygiene related tasks within her role because this could trigger her GAD. One aspect of this was that contact with body fluids was to be avoided, which included sweat and, potentially, blood as part of health MOT tests.
While Ms Burton was not required to undertake duties that would trigger her disability, the tribunal found that she often came under pressure from her managers to carry out such tasks and her inability to perform them was met with repeated scepticism. One manager, for example, questioned why Ms Burton would want to work in a gym given her condition.
The employment tribunal also found the systems for recording and disseminating her condition and the adjustments to her role were inadequate, because Ms Burton had to repeatedly enter into difficult conversations with managers about her condition and the adjustments that had been agreed.
Additionally, the tribunal found that management were sometimes not appropriately trained to address sensitive mental issues, showing sceptical attitudes and sometimes exhibiting hostility and impatience towards Ms Burton.
Ms Burton’s claims of direct discrimination, failure to make reasonable adjustments and victimisation succeeded in part.
While this is only an employment tribunal case, it serves as a useful reminder that mental health conditions can manifest in different ways for staff and should always be treated with sensitivity and care.
In this case, the occupational health advice had clearly indicated the adjustments that would enable Ms Burton to be able to undertake her role. However, while these adjustments were accepted by Nuffield Health, Ms Burton continued to have awkward conversations with her managers about her condition – with them often unaware of why she was unable to undertake hygiene related tasks.
Employers should consider training senior staff to be able to manage mental health issues within the workplace appropriately. Greater sensitivity and better systems for communicating the adjustments within the interchangeable management team would undoubtedly have been key steps in addressing some of the issues that arose in this case.