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Stress at work-when is an employer liable?

30th April 2015
A recent case has examined the issue of stress at work and the question of when can an employer be liable when it is claimed that the stress is caused by the individual's work.

The case of Easton v B&Q plc illustrates the difficulties that an individual is likely to encounter in bringing a claim against their employer for compensation for psychiatric illness caused by stress.

It has been established for a number of years that work related stress can give rise to a claim for personal injury in the County or High Court (this is not in the jurisdiction of the Employment Tribunal unless it arises from an act of unlawful discrimination).

There were a number of cases in the later 1990s and 2000s which established a number of principles for the courts in considering this type of case. In the Easton case the High Court provided a useful summary of the principles established in some of cases in addressing the actual case in question.

Mr Easton was a manager of a supermarket. Somewhat ironically evidence was provided by colleagues (which was ruled to be irrelevant to the question of whether or not his claim was established), which indicated that he could be abrupt and aggressive in his management style, and that he regularly berated members of staff on the shop floor- no doubt causing a lot of stress to those members of staff. Despite this approach to management, Mr Easton had been very successful and progressed to the position of manager - despite having left school with very few qualifications.

He went off sick from work for a period of roughly five months, and received therapy and medication for depression. He returned on a phased basis at a store that was nearer to his home. However, that did not work, and he signed off sick from work again due to depression. He then brought a claim against his employer claiming that they were liable for the stress and he sought compensation from them. In part he asserted that the lack of a risk assessment dealing with stress supported his claim.

In giving its decision the High Court referred back to the principles arising from the leading cases on this area of law. In doing so, the Court noted that an employer is under no general obligation to make searching or intrusive enquiries of an employee, and can take at face value what an employee tells him about his health. In particular the Court noted that an employee who returns to work after a period of sickness absence without making any further qualifying condition about that return is, in effect, indicating that he or she believes themself to be fit to return to work as they had been doing before the absence.

In the decision the Court ruled that it was not foreseeable that Mr Easton would have a breakdown. This conclusion was reached due to the fact that Mr Easton had a long managerial career in charge of large stores, and had no previous mental health history. Turning to the subsequent relapse suffered by Mr Easton the Court noted that his employer clearly knew at that point that Mr Easton had a history of mental health problems. But the fact that Mr Easton was still taking medication was not determinative as to how his employment should then be handled. The Court noted that many people hold stressful jobs while taking medication. In the circumstances the Court ruled that the subsequent relapse had not in fact been reasonably foreseeable by the employer, and on that basis they could not be held liable for the psychiatric illness Mr Easton had suffered.

On the subject of the lack of a specific risk assessment on the topic of stress the Court noted that a wider risk assessment would not have affected the outcome, and observed that Mr Easton had made insufficient attempts to notify his employer of the problems he was experiencing.

The case illustrated the established principles that in order for harm to be foreseeable the indication of harm must be plain enough for any reasonable employer to realise that they must do something about it, but that no specific job is to be regarded as intrinsically dangerous to mental health. An employer is only expected to take such steps as are likely to do some good for the individual. The case law already accepts that most employees will encounter difficulties with the amount of nature of their work at some point, but very few risk psychiatric illness as a result.

The message for individuals in moments of stress is to let their employer know of the difficulties they are facing (and record the fact that those difficulties are have arisen). For employers, they can assume that the individual is fit to carry out their work if they say so, unless it becomes clear that they are facing difficulties. However, once an individual raises such issues the employer should deal with them seriously, and not just pass them off as trivial or exaggerated. Employers should have a Health and Safety risk assessment dealing with stress at work, but this should be proportionate to the actual risks known to be associated with the work in question.

If you require further advice or assistance on any matter raised in this article do not hesitate to contact us at Hallett Employment Law Services Ltd.
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