State Hospitals Board could not have predicted causing employee’s psychiatric illness, says Scottish Court Session. Most employers will be aware, not least from recent cases concerning stress, that they have a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees. They have a responsibility to make reasonable efforts to avoid exposing employees to the risk of injury, including psychiatric harm.
The development of the case law in this area has given employers cause for concern, given the apparent increase in the number of employees reporting stress and anxiety within the workplace. How far, then, does the employer’s duty go?
Some comfort may be taken from the recent case of Fraser v State Hospitals Board for Scotland which indicates there are limits to the duty to take reasonable care when it comes to stress.
The case came before the Scottish Court Session. Fraser had been employed as a nurse in a high-security prison hospital. In 1994, he was accused of failing to ensure that proper security checks were carried out.
He refused to accept that he was responsible for these security breaches, as a result of which, in 1995, his manager decided to remove some of his responsibilities and put him under supervision of a lower grade nurse for three months.
In the event, this supervision lasted longer and in January 1996 Fraser, who was resentful about the treatment he had received, went off sick. He did not return to work. He was diagnosed as suffering from a combination of stress and depression and told the board that this had resulted from his inability to cope with the changes made to his responsibilities. He was subsequently dismissed on grounds of mental health in June 1996. Fraser claimed damages for personal injury.
The court looked at three issues:
- Whether Fraser was suffering from a condition for which damages were potentially recoverable.
- Whether the employer was responsible for causing that condition.
- Whether it was reasonably foreseeable that he would suffer the condition.
In answer to the first question, the court accepted medical evidence that, although stress, anxiety and depression were not psychiatric illnesses, a depressive disorder, such as that suffered by Fraser, was.
The court also accepted that the changes to Fraser’s responsibilities were contributory causes to his illness.
Finally, the court considered the third questi