Blog: When work doesn’t work - tackling employment problems

This is a guest post by Hatton James Legal, an employment law specialist based in Birmingham.

When Caroline came to us she was tearful.

Ten years ago she was diagnosed with a meningioma brain tumour that wrapped itself around her optic nerve. The tumour was removed within a month but Caroline was left with permanent double vision, deafness in one ear and a droopy eyelid.

Confusion and noise made her easily tired, so she chose to work part-time in her role as a legal secretary. Her employer was understanding and didn't object to her regular check-ups and scans. Caroline described herself as having a 'condition' or a 'problem' but her company never made her feel it was a problem for them.

But when new owners took over, they made her sit in an open-plan office next to a colleague who spent most of the day on the telephone. It was a lot of noise and distraction for her to deal with. Still, she didn't make a fuss.

Over time, Caroline's workload increased and her disorganised boss gave her urgent work at the end of the day. When she wanted to leave on time, he would groan, sigh or joke about it, making her feel lazy. Bosses would complain openly about colleagues taking sick days, putting pressure on her to be at work instead of resting.

A backlog built up despite her working more hours than her body could cope with. An important deadline was missed and the disorganised boss blamed her. She felt scapegoated. She was traumatised by the unfairness of being blamed and handed in her resignation soon after.

When Caroline brought a tribunal claim, her employer called her inefficient and denied knowing about her condition despite her history of appointments for scans.

Eventually the case was settled out of court. Caroline would rather have kept her job though.

Some lessons to draw from Caroline's experience are:

  1. You should tell your employer if you have a serious medical condition. They must consider making adjustments to the job after this point. Many employees with medical conditions keep it to themselves to avoid stigma but we rarely advise this.
  2. Instead, work with your employer and your doctors to get the support you need. Simple, low-cost arrangements can often help an employee enormously in the workplace, such as larger screens that prevent eye strain and flexible working
  3. You may be treated badly for a reason connected with your condition. For example, your performance may be lower than expected or you might need more time off or to work part-time. In this case, your employer has to apply a balanced approach and there is room for negotiation about what is a reasonable solution.
  4. It is unlawful to treat an employee poorly because of something to do with a serious medical condition and it may be a resigning issue – taking professional advice often pays off.

Should you always tell your employer if you're living with the effects of a brain tumour diagnosis? How has your employer adapted to your needs as a patient or a carer?

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