Olivia Sinfield of Osborne Clarke’s employment team investigates.
All Stressed Out ?
Stress in the workplace has been described as the 'Black Plague' of modern times and is particularly prevalent in 'people businesses' such as marketing services. It is estimated to be the most common cause of work-related illness, causing one in five employees to take time off work. Some employers dismiss stress as a normal part of working life, describing those who can't take the pressure as 'wimps'. The price to pay for this approach can be high. Not only is there the impact of lost working days but also the financial cost of personal injury legal claims. 6,428 new cases were reported last year, compared with 516 the year before.
But now, appeal judges have at least made it plain that employees aren't going to have it all their own way.
Last month the Court of Appeal considered four appeals by employers against damages awarded to employees after they stopped work for stress induced psychiatric illness. The Court of Appeal found in favour of the employer in three of the four cases and overturned compensation awards totalling nearly £200,000.
In reaching their decision, the Court of Appeal laid down new guidelines to determine whether an employer is liable for personal injury. The essential points to note are:-
· The signs of stress must be plain enough for any reasonable employer to realise something should be done about it;
· Employers are entitled to take at face value what they are told by employees and do not need to make searching enquiries;
· Employers can usually assume that employees can withstand normal pressures of the job unless they know of a particular problem;
· Any employer who offers a confidential counselling service with access to treatment is unlikely to be found in breach of duty; and
· The employee must show that the employer has breached their duty of care, the stress of the job caused the illness and the employer reasonably foresaw the risk of illness;
These guidelines are helpful as they make it clear that employers are not responsible for non-work pressures and if employees are overworked or suffering from stress then they have a responsibility to say so. If they don't, employers can't be expected to second-guess a problem. Where employees don't suffer in silence and have complained about overwork, bullying, inadequate training or unrealistic deadline then the onus is on the employer to take action or if they don't, face defending a possible stress claim in court.
We will wait and see whether this decision will dampen the trend of stress-related claims.