Many employees have time off work because of a stress-related illness but if, at interview, they failed to declare a similar problem in a previous employment, they could risk losing their job. Sensitive handling for all parties will help achieve a fair resolution, by Jonathan Maude
Peter applies for a position as manager at Logg & Co, a freight logistics company. Logg & Co anticipates winning a contract that is likely to increase the work coming into its depot by 50 per cent and has decided to recruit someone to perform the managerial function at a local level.
Peter's application form and CV show he has a fair amount of experience. The answers he gives on the medical questionnaire do not disclose any significant medical condition. But he has, in fact, suffered from stress-related illness in the past. Following interview it is decided to offer him the position as it appears he will need minimal guidance in undertaking the role. Is Logg & Co wise to offer him the job without further medical investigation or discussion?
Logg & Co has considered Peter's application on the basis of his experience and his interview. In addition, Peter has completed a medical questionnaire that does not highlight any pre-existing issues that should concern the company.
On 5 February 2002 the Court of Appeal, in the decision of Hatton v Sutherland and others, considered four cases on appeal from four separate county courts. Each concerned awards of damages against employers after the litigants concerned had stopped working due to stress-induced psychiatric illness.
In essence, for the employer to be liable for negligence, the employee needs to show that the employer has breached a duty of care that it owes to employees by allowing a practice to continue when it was reasonably foreseeable it would cause injury. The employer is obliged to provide a safe system of work; this amounts to an obligation to provide reasonable support to the employee to perform his or her duties in a way that will avoid causing psychological injury.
This recent decision follows a number of cases in which employers have been held liable for psychiatric injury since the landmark case of Walker v Northumberland County Council, 1995, 1 All ER 737. The Court of Appeal used the Hatton decision to give useful "practical propositions" that are intended to enable courts to consi