An increase in mental-health related employment tribunal claims during the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked concerns about workplace discrimination.

Evidence from the Employment Tribunal Service in Scotland suggests there has been a rise in disability discrimination cases, with a notable number relating to issues such as anxiety and depression.

The increase in claims was reported in minutes from an employment tribunal user group meeting, which also heard that several of the new cases directly mention the coronavirus crisis and its impact on claimants’ mental health.

Charities said they are concerned and saddened by the rise and warned employers that they have a legal responsibility to look after the mental health of workers.

Wendy Halliday, director of See Me Scotland, said: “We are very concerned to see a rise in claims from people who have experienced discrimination in work related to mental health issues, especially as we know that more people than ever are struggling with their mental health as a result of the pandemic.

“Employers have a legal and moral responsibility to look after the mental health and well-being of everyone who works for them.

“However, we know that there is a significant problem with people in Scotland not being able to speak openly about their mental health in the workplace. They worry about the impact it could have on their career, on being treated differently in the workplace and that disclosing the issue could potentially even cost them their job.

“The rise in claims seen here could indicate that these worries are valid, and if people do speak out, they can be treated unfairly.

“We want organisations to create a culture that is open in talking about mental health and where discriminatory behaviour is challenged.”

Disability discrimination arises when employers treat workers unfairly due to a disability. This can involve sacking them, refusing to promote them, or harassment.

The Mental Health Foundation said more needs to be done to equip managers and employers with the skills to deal effectively with mental health, with research suggesting that almost 40% of people would give a different reason to their boss if they needed to take time off due to it.

Shari McDaid, Head of Evidence and Impact for the foundation, said: “It’s sad to hear of an increase in the number of employment tribunals involving disability discrimination arising from mental health impairments.

"Our research shows that only 26% of workers surveyed experience a workplace culture that encourages complete openness about mental health – despite many of us facing additional challenges to our mental health during the pandemic.

"We need to create working cultures that enable conversations about mental health and equip managers and organisations with the ability to make the kind of reasonable adjustments that allow those of us with mental health problems to thrive at work.

"Beyond this, we are calling on the next Scottish Government to introduce a Future of Work Commission to look at how to best support workplaces and workers through the changes in working practice the pandemic has accelerated – so that protecting and promoting mental health is at the core of work going forward.”

Ms Halliday echoed the call for better training for managers and employers, adding: "To prevent discrimination it is important employers need to take steps to address negative attitudes and behaviours towards anyone experiencing a mental health problem.

"They need to ensure equal and fair recruitment processes are in place, that those returning to work following ill-health are fully supported and that managers receive proper training to support employees."

The minutes from the tribunal meeting state that tribunal staff have "noticed a rise in single claims which include complaints of disability discrimination; the disability element in a noticeable number of these cases relates to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, with mention made in some cases of the impact of the pandemic".

The meeting also heard that there has been an increase in redundancy claims, with the construction and hospitality sectors particularly badly affected.

Overall, the total number of outstanding claims in Scotland has increased by one fifth year on year.

However, there are concerns that the backlog may increase further once the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme comes to an end in September.

The minutes state: "Obviously one of the factors the Employment Tribunal judiciary are very conscious of is what might happen when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough) comes to an end. That could lead to a further increase in workload and that is being factored into resource planning."

Almost every employment tribunal hearing is now being held remotely, with just over 300 hearings taking place in December and January.