Last reviewed 18 May 2015

In claims for psychiatric illness or injury arising from the stress of doing the work an employee was required to do, the issue to be determined is whether the kind of harm had been reasonably foreseeable, which depended upon what the employer knew or ought reasonably to have known about the employee. The High Court applied these principles in Easton v B & Q plc [2015] EWHC 880 (QB).

The Claimant, Mr Easton, was a senior and successful store manager for the Defendant, B & Q plc. In May 2010, he was diagnosed as suffering from depression caused by work-related stress. The Claimant was absent from work for about five months. A phased return to work was agreed. In the first week of his return, the Claimant met with a regional manager and was offered a temporary manager's role at a different store. He said he would need to think about it. However, he was subsequently certified as unfit for work due to depression. He claimed that this relapse was as a result of having felt under pressure to accept the offer of the temporary post. Save for a very brief unsuccessful attempt to return to work 15 months later, the Claimant never worked again for the Defendant. He subsequently brought a claim against his employer for psychiatric injury caused by work-related stress. His case was that his initial illness was caused by occupational stress and that this was due to the negligence and/or breach of statutory duty of the Defendant. Further, he claimed that the Defendant was in breach of duty in its management of his return to work in September 2010 so as to cause a relapse of his illness. The Defendant accepted that the Claimant had suffered a psychiatric illness and that the illness, at least in substantial measure, was caused by occupational stress. The Defendant’s primary case, was the Claimant's illness, was not foreseeable at any stage. The Defendant also argued that it did not act in breach of any duty whether prior to the onset of the psychiatric illness or at the time of the return to work in September 2010.

The High Court held that the question in this case was whether the injury was reasonably foreseeable by the employer.

In considering the Claimant’s first period of sickness absence, the court held that in the light of the Claimant’s long-established managerial career in charge of large retail outlets and the fact that he had no history of psychiatric illness and that “nothing about him gave anyone any clue that he might succumb to a psychiatric illness”, it followed that it was not reasonable for the Defendant to foresee that the Claimant would suffer the psychiatric injury. There was nothing about the Claimant which put his employer on notice that he might suffer psychiatric illness, and there was also nothing about store managers in general giving rise to foresight of such a risk.

In relation to his relapse, the court also held that the injury was not reasonably foreseeable. Just because an employer knows an employee to be vulnerable (as the Defendant did), does not mean the employer will inevitably be liable for any subsequent injury — the test of reasonable foreseeability still applies.

Given that the Claimant had said that he wanted to go back to work and felt ready to return, the court found that the Defendant was entitled to accept that an employee who has returned to work is fit to do so unless he says otherwise. There is no general obligation on the employer to make searching or intrusive enquiries and the employer is usually entitled to take at face value that which the employee tells them. The Defendant was entitled to act on the basis that the Claimant would be able to assess whether he wished to take up the temporary manager's post and the fact that the offer deviated from the planned phased return was not sufficient to make the offer a breach of the duty of care.

In so far as the Claimant sought to rely on the lack of a risk assessment by the employer in relation to stress, the Defendant had relied upon having a policy in relation to managing stress which invited individuals to identify and notify the employer of any symptoms concerned. The court held that the Claimant had made insufficient efforts to do this, and having regard to this, concluded that a wider risk assessment would have had no effect on the outcome.

In deciding this case, the High Court followed the Court of Appeal guidance given in Hatton v Sutherland [2002] EWCA Civ 76, CA, on claims by employees for damages in respect of psychiatric injury caused by stress in the workplace.