Stress at work

Stress
at work has become one of the most familiar issues for HR in recent years. In a
previous column, (6 November 2001), I stated it would be in very rare
circumstances that stress could form the basis of a successful legal claim,
whether in disability or personal injury claims.

A
recent Court of Appeal decision, as yet unreported, in Sutherland v Hatton has
confirmed this, and will give many employers cause for relief, although it does
raise some action points.

The
latest decision

The
Court of Appeal decision was given on four linked cases in which individuals
were forced to stop work due to stress-induced psychiatric illness. Two of the
claimants were teachers, the third an administrative assistant with a local
authority and the fourth, a factory operative. Three of the claims were
dismissed, and the fourth was allowed – although reluctantly.

The
key points made by the Court of Appeal were that no job should be assumed to be
intrinsically dangerous to mental health, and that employers in normal
circumstances can proceed on the assumption that their employees can withstand
the normal pressures of the job unless any particular sensitivities have been
made known.

It
added that when an employer communicates with an employee, it is generally
allowed to take the employee’s comments at face value, unless there is good
reason to believe otherwise. Employers therefore appear to have been absolved
from making extensive medical enquiries about their employees.

The
Court of Appeal went on to say that employers only have a duty to act if it is
becoming obvious, on an objective basis, that it should do something about a
stressful situation. Employers offering confidential advice services, with
referral to appropriate counselling or treatment services, are unlikely ever to
be found in breach of duty.

This
is an important action point for employers. They should now be considering
whether it is cost effective or convenient for such a service to be provided as
a safety net in such situations.

Finally,
an employer will not be in breach of duty if it allows an individual who wants
to continue to work to do so, if the only way of preventing the stress-induced
illness would have been to dismiss or demote the individual.

Conclusion

Overall,
this is good news for employers, many of whom have been inundated with
stress-related claims in recent years. What is yet to be tested, however, is
the House of Lords’ hint in late 2001 that unfair dismissal compensation could
include damages for the stress and humiliation of a dismissal. If stress
compensation is available in unfair dismissal claims, the stress problem may
not have gone away entirely.

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