Case of the month

Hartman v South Essex Mental Health and Community Care NHS Trust, Court of Appeal
Liability for psychiatric illness caused in the workplace

The court gave judgment in six appeals relating to workplace stress claims allegedly caused by employers’ negligence. It commented on the applicability of guidance given in Hatton v Sutherland that “unless [the employer] knows of some particular problem or vulnerability, the employer is normally entitled to assume that its employee is up to the normal pressures of the job” – in particular saying that it is not to be read as having statutory force.

The cases covered a variety of situations including bullying, excessive workload and exposure to traumatic events.

In response to one case the court said that it was not right to attribute knowledge of confidential information that the employee had disclosed to the company’s doctor to the employer. Therefore if something is disclosed in an occupational health report but a person is passed as fit for work without such information being passed to the employer, the employer will not be deemed to have knowledge of that health problem.

In another case the Court of Appeal held that, where an employer had identified that the work of prison healthcare officers who had to deal with traumatic events put them at risk and had set up an occupational health care service with counselling, the employer could not avoid liability for psychiatric illness because it was not aware of an individual’s particular vulnerability to such illness (based on the Hatton v Sutherland decision). The employer had foreseen the general risk to employees and so was liable because it had not set its system up properly for dealing with traumatic events.

The guidance “unless he knows of some particular problem or vulnerability, the employer is normally entitled to assume that his employee is up to the normal pressures of the job” has its limitations and there is now scope to argue that, in the case of jobs involving trauma and potentially jobs with known levels of high stress, employers are not entitled to rely on the knowledge or lack of knowledge of a particular individual’s vulnerability to psychiatric illness.

What you should do

Always take into account any knowledge that you have of an employee’s particular vulnerability to psychiatric illness in dealings with that employee

Where the roles that employees are asked to perform could be classed as traumatic or involving high levels of stress, consider what steps could be taken to mitigate the problem.



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