Stress at work

Posted on: May 5th, 2015

When is an employer liable for a psychiatric illness caused by stress at work?

Employers are often troubled by the issue of stress at work. Where do you find the right balance between challenging your employees to work to the best of their abilities and to tight timescales, without piling on so much stress that they become ill? We are all different and whilst some of us thrive on pressure, others crumble beneath it. Employers tend to complain that stress at work is a wider problem than it used to be – that might be because we are more aware of our psychological health, and some of the taboo of depression has fallen away, or that being signed off with stress is a convenient way to avoid difficult work place situations. Or is it simply because the workplace has become more stressful?

This issue was considered recently in the case of Easton v B&Q plc, and the court had to decide whether the employer was liable for psychiatric illness caused by occupational stress.

Mr Easton was the manager of one of B&Q’s stores, however he became ill with depression and was signed off work for around five months. He received treatment and medication and returned to work on a phased basis to a different, and less busy, store. Unfortunately this return was unsuccessful and Mr Easton became ill and was signed off again for depression. He brought a claim against B&Q citing two main failures: (1) that his first breakdown was due to the company’s negligence in placing too much stress on him, and (2) that his second breakdown was also foreseeable as they did not manage his stress on his return to work. He complained that B&Q had failed to carry out a risk assessment in relation to stress; that he had to deal with a refurbishment and a restructure in relation to staff hours; and that his return to work after the first period of depression was not handled well enough, including rejection of his grievance.

The outcome

Employers will be relieved to hear that B&Q were not found to be liable for Mr Easton’s psychiatric illness. The Judge ruled that B&Q did not foresee his first breakdown as he had enjoyed a long managerial career in charge of large retail outlets with no psychiatric history. Asking him to oversee a store refurbishment and manage a restructure was not unreasonable.

As to the relapse suffered by Mr Easton, whilst B&Q clearly knew that he had suffered a psychiatric illness, it was still not foreseeable that he would fall ill again. Mr Easton argued that he was still taking medication and they had not carried out a risk assessment on his return. The Judge commented that there are many people holding down demanding jobs who still require medication, and this was not determinative of foreseeability. Regarding the risk assessment, B&Q had a document about managing stress, inviting individuals to identify and notify the employer of any symptoms concerned. The trial Judge was of the opinion that Mr Easton had made insufficient efforts to do this and therefore concluded that, on the facts of the particular case, a wider risk assessment would have had no effect on the outcome.

The Judge also commented that an employer has no general obligation to make searching or intrusive enquiries and may take at face value what an employee tells him. In particular, an employee who returns to work after a period of sickness without qualification is usually implying that he believes himself to be fit to return to the work he was doing before. The foreseeability threshold in stress claims is therefore high.

Comment

This will come as some comfort to employers, and the following tips can be taken from the case:

  • Employers are not expected to be mind readers. An employer is usually entitled to assume that an employee can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless he knows of some particular problem or vulnerability.
  • If an employer is aware of a mental health issue, he is generally entitled to take what he is told by his employee at face value, unless he has good reason to think to the contrary. There is no general obligation to make searching enquiries of the employee or seek permission for medical input.
  • Many people hold down demanding jobs with the support of medication for underlying psychiatric illnesses. The mere fact that a person remains on medication is not an indication as to how their work should be managed. 
  • Outward signs of stress should trigger an obligation to make enquiries and potentially to complete a risk assessment. Factors such as frequent or prolonged absence, complaints from the employee or others, or a known history of stress related illness are all relevant.
  • Whilst the outcome of a grievance may add to the employee’s distress – this does not itself amount to a claim. However, unreasonable handling of a grievance process could breach the employer’s duty.

However, it isn’t wise to be blinkered and assume that ‘if the employee doesn’t ask – you don’t have to do anything’. We would encourage open communication with employees about stress at work, and ensure that your staff feel able to come to you with any concerns. Forewarned is forearmed!