Injury & Compensation

Employer's liability for illness caused by stress at work

by Anthony Lam, Solicitor, Au-Yeung, Cheng, Ho & Tin

Article exclusively contributed by Au-Yeung, Cheng, Ho & Tin

Every job entails specific tasks, responsibilities and day-to-day problems which create the pressures and demands that are an unavoidable part of working life. Employees are paid to work hard and know they must accept a certain amount of stress as part of the job. In fact, many people use pressure as source of motivation and get a sense of achievement from dealing with it.

However, excessive stress in the workplace can obviously be harmful. People have different limits and too much pressure can undermine health and may even lead to an employer being held liable for damages in respect of psychiatric injury caused by stress arising from employment. The 2002 case of Jones vs Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council in the English Court of Appeal (the Jones case) serves as illustration.

The local authority employed Mrs Jones as administrative assistant of a training centre in August 1992. She effectively had to run all the centre's administration and, most importantly, collate information and submit monthly claims for funding. This was vital for continuing operations and deadlines were strict. The workload was very heavy and Mrs Jones often worked between 60 and 81 hours a week, far in excess of the 37 hours a week stipulated in her contract of employment.

She therefore complained to her immediate superior about overwork and unfair treatment in early 1993, but was told that her position would be discontinued if she continued to raise these issues. Her superior promised to get extra help, but nothing happened. In June 1994, Mrs Jones sent a five-page document to the personnel officer, setting out that, among other things, she was suffering stress-related health problems. Several times she applied for a transfer, but without success. Nothing was done to reduce her excessive hours or accommodate her requests.

In January 1995, Mrs Jones had to take sick leave and never returned to work. Early the following year, her psychiatrist diagnosed "an acute anxiety state 12 months ago which has developed into a generalised anxiety state with agoraphobia accompanied by mild depression and obsessive compulsive symptoms". Mrs Jones lodged a claim against her employer and was awarded damages, which led to an appeal.

The Court of Appeal held that the local authority knew excessive demands were being placed on Mrs Jones and that she had complained about the problems at work which were harming her health.

Once it was established that the treatment at work and her formal complaints made the injury foreseeable, it should not have been difficult for an employer to identify what necessary steps to take to cope with the problems. The Court of Appeal concluded that failure to take any steps had caused Mrs Jones's breakdown and that she was entitled to damages.

In reaching this decision, the Court reviewed numerous cases about injury at work and summarised a number of well-established legal principles. When determining an employer's liability for causing psychiatric or physical illness or injury arising from the stress of doing certain work, the key question is whether this kind of harm was foreseeable for a particular employee. (Update: Relevant cases include Walker v Northumberland County Council (1995), Hatton v Sutherland (2002) and Barber v Somerset County Council (2004).)

This depends upon whether the employer knows or ought reasonably to know about the individual employee. In this regard, an employer is usually entitled to assume that the employee can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless there is known to be some particular problem or vulnerability.

In view of the Jones case, employers are advised to take positive steps to protect their employees from stress-related harm if it is clear that certain individuals are excessively overloaded.

Q&A on stress-related illness caused in the workplace
Q1 What are the relevant factors in determining if harm was foreseeable?
A1 In the Jones case, the relevant factors considered by the Court of Appeal include:
(a) The nature and extent of the work done by the employee. Is the workload much more than normal for the particular job? Is the work especially demanding in an intellectual or emotional way for this employee? Are the demands being made of this employee unreasonable when compared with those made of others in the same or comparable jobs? Are there signs that others doing this job are suffering harmful levels of stress? Is there an abnormal level of sickness or absenteeism in the same job or the same department?
(b) Signs from the employee of impending harm to health. Does the person have a particular problem or vulnerability? Has he or she already suffered from illness attributable to stress at work? Have there recently been frequent or prolonged absences which are uncharacteristic? Is there reason to think that these are attributable to stress at work because of complaints or warnings from the individual or from other people?

Q2 What steps can be taken to protect an employee from stress-related harm?
A2 Sometimes this depends on the circumstances. Among the suggested steps are the following: giving the employee a sabbatical; transferring him or her to other work; redistributing the work; providing additional help; arranging treatment or counselling; or providing a "buddy" or a mentor scheme to encourage confidence.

Taken from Career Times 23 September 2005

(Last review date: 23 August 2013)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributor

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