In recent times there has been an increase in reports of individuals suffering from stress at work, stress related absences/conditions and termination of employment on the ground of these factors.
In assessing why there has been increase in the above number of incidents, it may largely be due to the stigma associated with psychiatric and stress-related illness being reduced and there being more awareness in society of the impact of mental health conditions.
Considering the above means that it is vitally important for employers to consider their duty of care to employees when presented with a stress-related illness.
How far does an employee have to go?
In the recent High Court case Easton vs B&Q (2015) the court was given the task of determining whether B&Q had been in breach of its duty of care for one of its employees who was suffering from a work-related psychiatric illness. Mr Easton became unwell due to occupational stress and subsequently was away from work for five months. He returned on a phased return programme at a different store and later relapsed due to depression.
One of the major arguments in Mr Easton’s case was the fact B&Q had failed to conduct a risk assessment of his role in relation to stress.
A key point from the outcome of the case centres on the issue of foreseeability.As an employer if you know or ought reasonably to know that an individual is suffering or at risk of suffering a work-related illness, you are obliged to make enquires and take necessary steps to conduct a risk assessment and provide support for the individual. However, as an employer you are entitled to assume that someone can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless they suggest otherwise.
The point in the above case was that Mr Easton did not specifically raise during any meetings or appraisals that he was struggling to cope with the demands of the job.
Where an employee suffers from a psychiatric illness which has been caused wholly or partly by workplace stress the employer will only be liable if the illness was reasonably foreseeable. In this case because it was never brought to the attention of B&Q they were not deemed to be liable.
Therefore factors for employers to consider based on the above case are:
- Have there been any complaints from the employee or others?
- Is there a known history of stress related illnesses?
- Are we meeting regularly with employees and documenting appraisals/meetings?
- Is there support in place for early intervention for someone who is suffering from a stress related illness?
- Is there an established process and policy for an individual to raise concerns?
- Are our managers and teams trained to notice the signs of stress, support and sign-pot to an EAP service if necessary?
In conclusion this case highlights that employers have a duty of care for the mental health of their employees and that risk assessments have an important role to play where concerns are highlighted.
However, more significantly, employees must also be responsible for looking after their own mental health and seeking advice and support when needed in the workplace. This case also highlights the importance of making employees aware of the channels which they can raise concerns through for example a stress policy, regular meetings, introduction of employee wellbeing/helplines and sign posting areas of support.
Learning lessons from the above will not only help to protect employees from suffering illness due to demands at work but may also reduce any subsequent liabilities.