Work-related stress: case law development

Robert Spicer draws together some key cases in the area of workplace stress.

Definition of stress

There is no accepted legal or medical definition of stress. The widest definition of stress is anything which makes a person tense, angry, frustrated or unhappy. This clearly includes workplace pressures. Stress is said to result from a state of imbalance between the demands experienced by individuals and their capacity to adjust to those demands. Where demands are beyond a person’s capacities, then a state of stress is likely to result.

In 1991 Ichiro Oshima, a Japanese worker, committed suicide at the age of 24. He had not had a day off for 16 months and slept on average between 30 minutes and two hours each night. He set three alarm clocks to wake him for work. A Japanese court ruled that his suicide was the result of overwork. His employers were liable. This case is quoted as one of the most extreme recent examples of the effects of workplace stress.

What causes work-related stress?

Work-related stressors which may trigger stress reactions include:

  • IT issues

  • excessive working hours

  • night shift working

  • boredom

  • organisational changes

  • pressure of time

  • contradictory instructions and confusion being passed down a chain of authority

  • conflict with colleagues

  • competition

  • shock caused by discrimination, harassment or bullying

  • increased challenges

  • anger

  • fear

  • disciplinary proceedings

  • suspension

  • dismissal

  • uncertainty

  • lack of support

  • physical characteristics of the workplace

  • a workplace culture which refuses to recognise stress

  • travel to and for work.

Suing for work-related stress

The legal implications of work-related stress fall into two broad areas, as follows.

  1. A possible claim for personal injury, following the general principles of the law of negligence. The amount of compensation for personal injury is set out in the Judicial College Guidelines for the assessment of general damages. It is important to note that “stress” is not itself an injury for these purposes: there must be a recognisable psychiatric injury, eg specifically diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  2. Disability discrimination. Work-related stress may cause disability for the purposes of discrimination law, but again it appears that there must be a recognisable psychiatric injury, and stress in itself will not amount to a disability.

The law related to workplace stress and personal injury continues to develop. The main issues for consideration in cases of alleged illness caused by workplace stress are:

  • whether the employee has suffered damage to health as a result of workplace conditions

  • the extent of medical evidence in relation to the above

  • whether the employer knew or ought to have known that workplace conditions were damaging the health of the employee and failed to take steps to deal with this

  • whether there are external factors that have contributed to the employee’s illness

  • the application of the general principles of common law negligence, ie a duty of care, breach of that duty and resulting damage.

Brown v London Borough of Richmond upon Thames

One example of the development of these issues is the Court of Appeal case of Brown v London Borough of Richmond upon Thames (2012).

B claimed compensation from L for work-related stress. At first instance, his claim succeeded. The judge found that B had suffered stress associated with his work that had harmed his mental health and led to a breakdown at the end of June 2003. The judge found that the effect of L’s negligence was limited to 12 months from his last working day and that the causative effect of any breach of duty ceased at the end of 2004, being superseded from that point by the effects of the breakdown of his marriage.

B was awarded £25,000 for moderately severe psychiatric harm and £4891.42 for loss of earnings up to 30 June 2004.

The main point of the appeal was the cut-off date for the award for loss of earnings. On B’s behalf, it was submitted that the award should have continued beyond that date. Another issue was the relationship of the stress at work aspect to the fact that, during the relevant period, B suffered the traumatic breakdown of his marriage.

The Court of Appeal decided the following.

  • The breach of duty by L started in early 2003, as found by the judge. The evidence of what information was, or should reasonably have been, available to the employer at an earlier date was not of such a compelling nature as to lead to the conclusion that the judge had been wrong in this respect.

  • The overall test was the conduct of a reasonable and prudent employer taking positive thought for the safety of its workers in the light of what it knows or ought to know.

  • The appeal would be allowed in relation to the issue of loss of earnings from 30 June 2004. The judge had not conducted a careful analysis, which a complicated issue of this sort required. There was also medical evidence that B was unfit for work in late 2007 and that he would not be fit for work until six months after the end of litigation. That issue would be remitted to the judge for further consideration of the impact of the breakdown of B’s marriage.

The Brown case is one in a long line of decisions that is generally recognised as having started in 1990 with the case of Johnstone v Bloomsbury Health Authority, involving the hours worked by hospital doctors, where the Court of Appeal ruled that employers are under an implied duty to take reasonable care not to injure their employees’ health. This applies to physical and mental health.

Practical propositions for claims concerning stress

The landmark decision in this area of law remains Sutherland v Hatton and Others (2002), where the Court of Appeal ruled that the general principle is that employers should not have to pay compensation for stress-induced illness unless such illness was reasonably foreseeable. Employers are normally entitled to assume that employees can withstand the normal pressures of a job.

The court set out a number of practical propositions for future claims concerning workplace stress, including the following.

  • Employers do not have a duty to make searching enquiries about employees’ mental health. They are entitled to take what they are told by employees at face value unless they have good reason to disbelieve employees’ statements.

  • Indications of impending harm to health at work must be clear enough to show an employer that action should be taken in order for a duty on an employer to take action to arise.

  • Where an employee wishes to remain in a stressful job, and the only alternative is demotion or dismissal, the employer is not in breach of duty in allowing the employee to continue.

  • No type of work may be regarded as intrinsically dangerous to mental health.

  • Employers that offer confidential counselling advice services, with access to treatment, are unlikely to be found in breach of their duty of care in relation to workplace stress.

  • The amount of compensation will be reduced to take account of pre-existing conditions or the chance that the employee would have become ill in any event.

The Sutherland case remains the starting point for any potential personal injury claim related to stress.