In the UK last year, there were more than 200 deaths in the workplace, despite the stringent requirements of health and safety legislation.
In the recent case of Corr (Administratrix of the Estate of T Corr (deceased)) v IBC Vehicles Limited, the House of Lords considered the liability of an employer following the suicide of one of its staff.
The house took the view that Mr Corr, who had severe depression after a workplace accident six years before, had not made a voluntary informed decision to take his own life, and that the employer was liable under the Act, even though the death was self-inflicted.
The accident had been triggered by the employer’s negligence, which led to Corr suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The case raises serious questions as to how far employer obligations to the employee extend if an employee is diagnosed with stress or depression as a result of an occurrence at work.
Stress and depression
The UK has one of the highest sickness absence rates in Europe, much of it due to work-related stress and depression. On the face of it, employers who regularly expose their employees to unduly stressful situations (including requiring them to work unreasonably long hours), will be liable if the employee commits suicide as a direct result of that stress.
It could also have serious implications for employers that fail to take adequate steps to address allegations of stress or bullying in the workplace if the employee subsequently commits suicide.
Employers would do well to observe the old adage that ‘prevention is better than cure’ in such cases. Accordingly, organisations should focus their attention on the effectiveness of their health and safety policies, and the training they provide to those staff who deal with issues of injury and sickness absence. Employers should also focus on staff who may become the point of contact with the employee during their absence – particularly where there is any suggestion that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or severe depression.
Earlier cases have generally decided that the suicide of a sane person who made a deliberate and informed decision to take their own life broke the chain of causation between the accident and the death and that an employer would not be liable. And, in practice, there may be little that an employer can do to prevent a severely depressed employee from committing suicide.
However, if they maintain regular contact with an employee who is suffering from such a condition, they might be able to at least alert healthcare professionals if they see that the employee’s condition is deteriorating.