HR managers may be relieved at three recent cases in which employees were unsuccessful in pursuing stress claims. But the news is not all good, says Jill Kelly.
The key to successful stress at work claims is that it must be reasonably foreseeable to the employer that its conduct is likely to result in a stress illness.
In Levy v Allied Dunbar, December 2000, Levy had the pressure of revalidation of his contract annually. He did not get on with his line manager and told him that he felt physically sick after some of their encounters. Because of poor recruitment performance, Levy was put on a lower basic salary which he could only make up through bonuses if recruitment figures improved. He left work, suffering from a psychiatric disorder.
The High Court found that, although Levy had suffered a heart attack, there was nothing that should have alerted the company to his tendency to suffer from anxiety and depression. Levy did not have an excessive workload and although his line manager was demanding, his conduct was not oppressive. On this basis, the company had no liability towards him.
Fraser v State Hospitals Board of Scotland, 11 July 2000, is another case of a claim for psychiatric injury against an employer, this time brought by a staff nurse, who was in effect demoted as part a disciplinary process and developed clinical depression. The court held that disciplinary action might be predicted to cause the employee concerned anger, depression and anxiety, but the hospital board could not be expected to have foreseen that it would cause Fraser psychiatric injury, not least because Fraser never complained of undue stress.
This decision is also a reminder that stress and anxiety are not, in themselves, psychiatric illnesses and an employee cannot successfully claim damages unless they are suffering from an actual illness.
The third unsuccessful claimant was Garrett in a claim against the London Borough of Camden. The Court of Appeal commented that many people suffer from breakdowns and depressive illnesses and a significant proportion of them would put at least some of their probl