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When are employers liable for stress-related injury at work?

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Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan, an employment lawyer with Charles Lucas & Marshall, says there has been an increase in the number of employees alleging that their anxiety or depression has been caused or exacerbated by their employer.

Employers are under a direct duty to take all reasonable care to ensure employees are not exposed to the risk of harm during the course of their employment. A breach of this obligation may give rise to a personal injury negligence claim as well as an action for breach of contract.
There is uncertainty in this area as to whether the same approach to the issue of liability should apply where an employee becomes ill over a period of time because of their inability to cope with the ongoing demands of the job, as opposed to the situation where their illness arises suddenly as a result of a one-off act, such as an unfair disciplinary penalty.
In the case of Yapp v. FCO in November 2014, the Court of Appeal decided that the same approach should apply to both these situations. An employee can now only recover damages if it was ‘reasonably foreseeable’ that the employer’s actions may cause a stress-related injury.
The courts will not usually be prepared to find that psychiatric injury is a foreseeable consequence of an Employee’s unfair treatment unless there is evidence of some pre-existing vulnerability.
Employers are generally entitled to expect employees to be strong enough to cope with the pressures of the job or disciplinary proceedings. Employers need to be careful, however, where there are less obvious signs of stress.
If an employee has a recognised mental illness, an employer’s failure to comply with its duty to make reasonable adjustments (under the Equality Act 2010) will expose the employer to a disability discrimination claim. The employer will also be exposed to a successful personal injury claim for breach of the duty of care.
When managing employees who exhibit signs of stress or who have a recognised mental health condition of which the employer is aware, employers should, where possible:

  • Implement the Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards for work-related stress and provide stress awareness and management training on the potential dangers of prolonged occupational stress
  • Ensure that an employee on return to work following long-term sickness absence has a formal meeting to assess what steps are going to be put in place to ease the employee back into work on a graduated basis
  • Monitor working hours to ensure the employee is not working excessive hours and relieve them of some of their duties if required
  • Engage with the Fit for Work Scheme, which provides an occupational health assessment and advice to help people return to or stay in work after an illness
  • Offer a confidential counselling service, if available, but not assume that their duty of care is discharged by doing so
  • Consider, if practicable, changing the employee’s line manager or moving them to another part of the business, where there are indications/complaints of bullying or harassment

For further information please contact Andrew Egan on 01635 521212 or andrew.egan@clmlaw.co.uk

Written by Andrew Egan

February 24th, 2015 at 6:51 pm