A landmark legal ruling by the House of Lords has put the onus on employers
to keep up-to-date with what causes occupational stress and the effectiveness
of any precautions they may take.
The ruling, in the case of Barber v Somerset County Council, has also made
it clear that being unsympathetic to complaints of occupational stress or
having autocratic or bullying leadership could count against an employer.
The case centred on former schoolteacher Leon Barber, who suffered a mental
breakdown in November 1996, after working long hours following a restructuring
at his school the year before. He had spoken to the head teacher and two
deputies but nothing had been done to assist him.
The judge had taken the view that more should have been done for him, and
that the school had been in breach of its duty of care.
According to law firm Cloisters, which represented Barber, in ruling in his
favour and awarding £72,547 damages, the law lords agreed that, once an
employer knew an employee was at risk of suffering injury from occupational
stress, it was under a duty to act.
This duty continued until something reasonable was done.
Certified sickness absence because of stress or depression needed to be
taken seriously by employers, requiring an inquiry from the employer.
"They should not be brushed off unsympathetically, or by sympathising
but simply telling him or her to prioritise their work without taking steps to
improve or consider the situation further," said Cloisters.
Critically, a management culture that was sympathetic and ‘on their side’
could make a real difference to the outcome of a case.
"Monitoring employees who are known to be suffering from occupational
stress is mandatory. If they don’t improve, more drastic steps may need to be
taken to help them. Temporary recruitment may be required. Although this will
cost money, it will be less costly than the permanent loss through psychiatric
illness of a valued member of staff," added Cloisters.
The statutory duty to carry out risk assessments had also been recognised by
the judgment, it suggested.
The judgment was welcomed by the National Union of Teachers, which said more
teachers might be able to pursue claims as a result.