Sep 9, 2013

Is everything a disease now?

U.K. man – late for everything from dates to funerals – diagnosed with 'chronic lateness'

By Todd Humber

The next time an employee rolls in 30 minutes late, or just completely forgets to come to work, you may need to step back before issuing the standard discipline and ask yourself: “Is this a disability I need to accommodate?”

To my knowledge, the notion of lateness as a disease hasn’t been tested on this side of the pond, but the case of 57-year-old Jim Dunbar is making plenty of ripples in the United Kingdom. Dunbar, it turns out, has been late for pretty much everything in his life.

Show him something he needs to be on time for, and he’ll show you an example of when he wasn’t. Work, dates, meals with friends — even funerals — are on his list.

After decades of this behaviour, Dunbar was diagnosed with chronic lateness, according to the Daily Mail. The working theory is the condition is “caused by the same part of the brain affected by those who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and means Mr. Dunbar cannot properly gauge how long things take to complete.”

Dunbar said his family thinks he’s just making excuses, adding it has affected his entire life.

“The reason I want it out in the open is that there has got to be other folk out there with it, and they don’t realize it’s not their fault,” he said. “I blamed it on myself and thought, ‘Why can’t I be on time? I lost a lot of jobs. I can understand people’s reaction and why they don’t believe me… I can’t overstate how much it helped to say it was a condition.”

Employers are on the hook for accommodating plenty of illnesses and diseases — for better or for worse. The list of disabilities requiring accommodation is far too long to list, but it includes physical disabilities (such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy) and chronic diseases (such as asthma and arthritis). And the list is growing, encompassing mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety) and addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Companies are required to accommodate workers with disabilities to the point of undue hardship, which is appropriate. After all, accommodation is generally in the best interests of employers and employees alike. Organizations may bemoan the lengths they need to go to in order to prove “undue hardship” — the level where the accommodation just becomes too onerous and expensive — but the high bar is appropriate.

Employers that take the proper steps to accommodate workers benefit from increased productivity and loyalty, and it can have a ripple effect on morale throughout the organization — all employees like to see their employer doing the right thing.

But there has to be a limit to what is deserving of accommodation. On the cover of Sept. 23 issue of Canadian HR Reporter, we take a look at DSM-5, the newly revised bible for the psychological and psychiatric community. It covers a lot, as senior editor Sarah Dobson notes in her story.

But it doesn’t include chronic lateness. Sheri Jacobson, a psychotherapist in the U.K., probably said it best when she opined that turning everyday human behaviour into a medical condition would be “unwise.”

We’ve come a long way in recent years in recognizing mental health as a disability, but there is still a long way to go in convincing some of its legitimacy as an issue worth accommodation in the workplace. Cases like Dunbar, while we can all feel sympathy for him, aren’t helping advance that cause.

Not everything can be a disease, least of all a problem that can be solved with a good wristwatch.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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