Barber v Somerset County Council, House of Lords [2004] UKHL 13

Stress review: In 1995, Barber, a teacher, was employed as a head of department in a school. Changes at the school resulted in a new role for Barber, but he found the changes and increased hours very stressful.

Despite raising concerns with his employer, he received little sympathy, and soon became ill with stress and depression. Eventually he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Barber sued his employer for damages for personal injury, and was awarded more than £100,000. This decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal which considered three cases together, known as Hatton v Sutherland CC, and provided clear guidance on when employers might be liable for employees’ work-related stress. However, Barber appealed, and his case went to the House of Lords.

Their Lordships found that after his first sickness absence, his employer should at least have made ‘sympathetic enquiries’ and considered what could have been done to help. The useful guidance given by the Court of Appeal means employers can ordinarily assume that employees are up to their job.

A duty may arise however, as in this case, if any steps can be taken to assist an employee who is having difficulty coping. Barber’s employer was found wanting and as such had breached its duty of care and was liable in negligence.

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