Big week for stress sees six-figure settlements

If anything is to make employers sit up and take their duty of care
seriously, it is a rising compensation level.

At £203,000 richer, Randy Ingram starts the millennium with the dubious
honour of having pushed compensation for stress at work to a new record high.
After being shot at and assaulted in his role as a gypsy site warden in
Worcestershire since 1993, he is still on medication.

"The council has a lot to answer for," he said. "They have
made me very ill with stress and depression and my home life has suffered as a
result."

In a busy week for the world of stress, Ingram has just eclipsed Roderick
McLeod. Last week, he scooped £200,000 from Test Valley Borough Council for
psychiatric illness, which he claims was brought on by his bullying boss and
has led to five and a half years of chronic depression.

Policy failure

In Ingram’s case inconsistent policies, unique to the culture of local
authorities, appear to be at the heart of the matter. As soon as the warden
would decide to evict anti-social tenants, councillors would overrule him.

Of 10 wardens employed by the council, seven had been off work with stress.
Only one week before, a lower settlement of £14,500 had been reached for
another warden.

The council now claims that its policy of encouraging wardens to live
off-site and providing support has resolved the problem. lronically, shortly
before the Ingram settlement, the gypsy site team had won a prestigious award
for teamwork attached to a best value review.

Test Valley, however, remains tight-lipped. A spokesman said it settled only
on the advice of the insurers and would have fought McCleod’s claim if it had
the choice.

The names Ingram and McLeod will now take their places in the stress hall of
fame along with Walker, Ballantyne and Lancaster.

Due to the suffering of such people, organisations have been forced to take
their duty of care seriously because such hefty sums are involved.

New levels

The ubiquitous and fashionable term "stress" appears to be worth
far more than an arm or a leg. Patricia Leighton, head of the school of law at
Manchester Metropolitan University, said, "What catches the eye about
these cases is the level of compensation. Solicitors have a good idea of how
much can be expected for the loss of a finger or the loss of a limb. For a
serious physical injury such as blindness people are unlikely to get this
level."

Of the high-profile cases, Lancaster is the exception as the only one to
have gone to court. All the others were out-of-court settlements. But they do
have a very obvious factor in common. What is it with local authorities?

Rita Sammons, president of local government personnel directors’ body Socpo,
believes the reason lies in the fundamental nature of public service.
"Public sector workers are the ones who have to deal with people over very
sensitive and difficult issues. The stress is simply higher in front-line jobs.
While employers have made great strides with grievance procedures, counselling,
support and helplines, we still have a lot to learn."

But while this is doubtless the case, it does not explain why employers such
as the NHS or the Benefits Agency have escaped having to make settlements. Andy
Wilson, employee relations adviser for The Employers’ Organisation for local
government, argues strongly against local authorities being "a soft
touch". He points out that many of the cases now emerging started several
years ago, before many local authorities starting giving priority to stress. He
urges a sense of perspective.

"In many ways, given the numbers employed and the huge internal changes
that local government is going through, the number of stress payments has been
remarkably small."

Slow take-up

The point about perspective is germane. After the Walker case, an avalanche
of stress claims was widely predicted, but has largely failed to happen.

Take Umist law lecturer Jill Earnshaw’s speech to the 1996 IPD conference.
"The numbers of people going to see their solicitors with stress-related
problems is huge," Earnshaw told the conference. "There have been a
couple of settlements, but the deluge simply has not happened due largely to
the legal difficulties in successfully taking a case." That still holds
good.

Claims collapse on the issue of "forseeability" – whether
employers could have reasonably foreseen the consequences of the pressure they
were loading on employees – and the great difficulty applicants have in proving
that the stress was caused by work and not by life in general.

The main lesson from these two individual cases is the same as usual.
"Employers ignore staff complaints about stress at their peril," said
Angela Hetherington, clinical director of PPC Healthcare, a provider of
employee assistance programmes. "Employers have a clear statutory and
legal responsibility for the stress the job incurs and must demonstrate a clear
duty of care. Organisations need to demonstrate they have taken action to
provide support for employees."

Prominent cases of workplace stress

John Walker The Northumberland senior social worker made history by
winning the first stress settlement of £175,000 in April 1996.

Janet BallantyneSecond in command of an old people’s home run by
Strathclyde Regional Council, Ballantyne won £66,000 in June 1996.

Beverley Lancaster Employed by Birmingham City Council, Lancaster
switched to a housing officer role without training. She won £67,000 in July
1999 and received the first acknowledgement by an employer that it was liable
for stress.

By Stephen Overell

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