‘Work rage’

Q I’ve heard about ‘work rage’ – is it for real?

A Yes. The latest British Crime Survey by the Home Office and the Health & Safety Executive found 849,000 incidents in England and Wales in 2002/2003, including threats and physical assaults. This means that employers need to protect themselves and their staff against what could prove to be a costly and stressful problem.

Q Why would it concern me as an employer? It is not my fault if people get work rage, is it?

A Work rage can be a very real problem for you as an employer on any number of levels. The contract of employment includes an implied duty of trust and confidence between employer and employee. If the employer is abusive, they may be breaking that implied duty. This could mean the worker may have the right to quit and claim constructive dismissal and/or breach of contract. That applies no matter how senior the employee.

In a recent case, abusive behaviour was deemed to be a breach of contract to the tune of more than £500,000 in damages. The court wholly rejected the employer’s claim that because the worker was very senior and well paid, they could abuse him.

On top of that, committing such behaviour, or not doing enough to stop it, could breach the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Section 2 requires employers to operate safe systems and places of work, so far as is reasonably practicable. Failure to do so can carry both civil and criminal penalties.

Allegations of breaches of the 1974 Act have been used in claims for damages for stress. This is relevant to employers for claims for stress made by victims of workplace violence, and where stress is the cause of an incident of workplace rage.

Finally, if an employee is being threatened, bullied, subjected to violence, or is in fact so stressed that they become one of the sources of work rage, it will probably lead to sick leave, and all the costs and difficulties this implies for the employer.

Q Surely the employee needs to have been employed for more than a year to bring the claim?

A Not necessarily. A worker usually requires one year’s service if they wish to allege constructive dismissal. On the other hand, if they can demonstrate that they walked out for a “health and safety-related reason” (as in S.100(d) of the Employment Rights Act 1996), then they don’t need to have one year’s service.

Violence motivated by racial or sexual hostility, religious intolerance or prejudice towards people because of their sexual orientation, could leave employers exposed to potentially high levels of damages in discrimination claims, where there is no qualifying period of service.

Q What can I do to help prevent workplace rage and protect myself from incurring claims?

– Operate zero tolerance policies on violence against staff

– Make it clear in disciplinary policies that such behaviour will not be tolerated and will be viewed as gross misconduct

– Make sure your whistleblowing and anti-harassment policies are up-to-date

– Consider how the root cause of work rage can be addressed

– Offer confidential counselling/medical assistance (apart from anything else, this might help to fend off stress claims)n Offer training (where appropriate) in dealing with aggressive individuals.

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