Can you foresee stress in the workplace?

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It is important that employees are made aware of any internal systems you have in place.

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In a recent Employment Tribunal decision, it was discussed whether an employer could be liable for a psychiatric illness caused purely by the stress placed on staff in the course of their employment.

The claimant in this case was a manager at a supermarket, who, after a period of time, developed a psychiatric illness due to the stresses of his role. He claimed that his employer had breached their duty to provide a safe working environment which would have prevented him from becoming ill. He claimed that the employer had failed to foresee the potential stresses of the role by not undertaking risk assessments to evaluate the level of stress the role may bring.

Due to the stress he suffered at work, the claimant became depressed for a period of 5 months. He began a phased return to work in a less busy store, but still in a management role. He however could not cope with the stress and again took time away from work.

The claimant then began a claim against the employer.

The issue for the Tribunal here, was to assess whether the claimants depression was reasonably foreseeable to the employer? Previous case law has dictated that damages are payable for psychiatric injury caused by workplace stress, but only if the illness was reasonably foreseeable. The Tribunal here had to assess any foreseeability by deciding how far the employer had to go in terms of investigation into an employee’s illness. Previous case law dictates that employees are not obligated to go deliberately probing or asking intrusive questions the employee and should take what the employee tells them at face value.

In this case, the claimant returned to work after his first period of illness, claiming to be better, however, requested lighter duties in another, less busy store.  It was therefore deemed by the Tribunal that in relation to the first period of illness, the employer could not have reasonably foreseen the illness, on the basis that the claimant had undertaken a managerial role for a significant period of time without any issue. As the claimant gave no warning signs to his employer, there was no obligation on the employer to know the illness was present.

However, with regard to the second period of illness, the employer was fully aware of the claimant’s previous medical history, and as such, knew he was prone to psychiatric illness if his stress levels were elevated. The employer failed to undertake reasonable risk assessments when the claimant returned to work, however they did have generic documentation relating to stress management, whereby employees could try and indentify the indicator of stress and report them to the employer before they escalated.

The tribunal therefore felt that as the employee had not utilised this, they had not kept the employer informed of their condition, and therefore a wider risk assessment would not have been to any benefit. Further, the tribunal held that the second period of illness was also not foreseeable, due to the claimant’s lack of communication with the employer. The claimant claimed that since he was on continued medication, this should have alerted the employer to the fact that the claimant could have relapsed at any time, and as such the employer failed to provide a safe working environment. The Tribunal disagreed with this, stating that many people function in high powered positions whilst on medication, and as such this was not an indicator, that the employee was unable to cope with his altered role.

The key here is that the employer had acted reasonably by moving the claimant to a less busy store at his request, and had a clear system of safe working in place, where employees could discuss and highlight any stress factors before they became a deeper rooted issue.

It is therefore important that employees are made aware of any internal systems you have in place.  Make them aware of this either through your contracts of employment, or company handbook and notice board.

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