Employers have duty of care for stress returnees

The onus is on the employer to ensure workload is appropriate when staff return
from sick leave due to stress, rules the Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal in Young v Post Office, 2002, ECWA Civ 661 has ruled
that an employer cannot successfully defend a claim for damages caused by
stress at work on the grounds that it allowed the employee to work as little or
as much as they wanted.

The Law

It is well established that an employer has a duty to take reasonable care
of the health and safety of its employees.

The recent Court of Appeal decision in Sutherland v Hatton, 2002, EWCA Civ
76, looked at an employer’s obligations in the context of stress-related
illnesses. This decision provided employers with some comfort. It indicated
that normally, an employer will only be in breach of this duty where the
employee has made it known that their work is having a detrimental effect on
their health.

The Young decision looks at an exception to the norm.

Facts

Mr Young was a conscientious and hardworking individual. It was agreed that
his job of workshop manager was stressful.

From 1994 he showed signs of stress and in 1997, he suffered a nervous
breakdown. Young was absent for four months, following which it was agreed that
he would return to the company on a gradual basis, working the hours he wanted.
This was an attempt to safeguard his health and avoid a recurrence .

However, within two weeks of returning to work, Young was back under
pressure and no longer in control of his time. Seven weeks after his return,
Young was absent again due to stress.

The county court concluded that the Post Office had breached its duty of
care to Young and awarded him approximately £94,000 in damages.

The Appeal

The Post Office appealed. It argued that the county court had failed to
consider the case as a whole, and in particular had omitted to place emphasis
on the fact that Young returned to work at his own instigation, and had also
been told he could arrive and leave whenever he wished.

It also appealed on the basis that none of his work colleagues had heard him
complaining about the stress he was under. Indeed, Young believed he could
cope. It was not reasonably foreseeable by the company that he would suffer a
relapse of his illness.

The Court of Appeal rejected these submissions, upholding the decision that
the Post Office had breached its duty of care to Young. It found that his
second period of illness was reasonably foreseeable, and the Post Office had
failed to ensure the special arrangements it put in place for him were applied
in practice.

Further, it found that Young was not guilty of contributary negligence in
inflicting stress upon himself. The onus was on the Post Office to ensure his
return to work was properly managed and that the proposed arrangements actually
worked in practice.

It could not accept that the onus was on Young. He was naturally
conscientious and hardworking and given his previous ill health, could not be
expected to judge the amount of work he should undertake.

Key Points

– If an employee’s stress is work-related, consider what arrangements can be
made to their duties/workplace to minimise the risk of any such illness
recurring.

– Employers should adopt a pro-active approach to monitoring how the
arrangements work in practice. Are they being implemented on a daily basis? Are
they satisfactory? Do alternative approaches need to be considered? This is
particularly important in the case of an employee who is naturally
conscientious and hardworking.

– It will not be a defence for an employer to claim it allowed the employee
to work as much or as little as they wanted.

Nicholas Moore is head of Employment at Osborne Clarke

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