Mrs Daw was employed as a merger and acquisitions payroll integration analyst on a salary of £33,000 per annum. She had 13 years’ service. In June 2001, she suffered a breakdown caused by chronic depression arising from her excessive workload. She issued proceedings against her employer for damages for personal injury arising from the employer’s negligence, breach of statutory duty, and duty of care.
At the initial trial, the High Court judge held that Daw’s work was rated as outstanding by her employer. But her reporting lines were confused, and prioritising the demands made upon her by different managers was problematic. Although Daw had complained about her workload in e-mails, and was found in tears by one of her line managers, no urgent action plan was put in place immediately to reduce her workload.
The original trial judge assessed compensation for personal injury caused by stress at work and for loss of earnings in excess of £134,000. Intel appealed on the basis that Daw had free access to external confidential counselling, support and medical assistance, which she failed to use.
The Court of Appeal held that an employer’s short-term counselling service could not have reduced the risk of a breakdown, since it did not reduce her workload – the cause of the stress. At most, such a service could only have advised the employee to see her own doctor. This was insufficient to discharge the employer’s duty to provide a safe working environment. While it recognised that Intel could not have reasonably foreseen Daw’s breakdown in health by virtue of her medical history, this was not considered to be relevant.
This is an important decision, since the Court of Appeal has made it clear that where an employee is experiencing stress relating to excessive workloads, the presence of a workplace counselling service will not automatically serve to discharge the employer’s duty of care in stress claims. Even if an employer has systems in place to support staff who are suffering from work-related stress, this is no substitute for putting an action plan in place to reduce their workload. Failure to do so will result in the employer being found to be negligent.
A failure by management to combat work-related stress – when made known to it – is likely to lead to a finding that the employer has failed to discharge its duty of care owed to its staff.
The court also accepted that the employer did not have prior knowledge that the employee was susceptible to work-related depression. But despite this lack of knowledge, the employer was still held liable, because it was aware of Daw’s excessive workload.
Employers must put measures in place to reduce workloads when receiving complaints from staff who cannot cope. Otherwise, you will risk paying considerable damages in claims for personal injury caused by the working environment.
By Michael Delaney, partner of Matthew Arnold & Baldwin