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Richard White

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Legislation update: Stress at work – ignore at your peril

stress

A recent case has shown that the mere presence of support services is not adequate if an employer wants to avoid being held liable for stress at work. Richard White considers this case further.

 
 
The leading case in the area of stress at work is Hatton v Sutherland in which the Court of Appeal set out guidelines on an employer’s obligations in relation to workplace stress. The recent case of Connor v Surrey County Council highlighted that the presence of specialist support services was not sufficient for an employer to avoid liability for stress at work. An employer must actively consider how to deploy its support services when faced with an employee at risk of psychiatric injury.
 

Facts

 
Erica Connor joined the New Monument Primary School in Surrey as deputy head in 1994. The majority of pupils at the school were Muslim, although the school was multicultural. Ms Connor was promoted to head teacher in 1998. Under her leadership, the school’s SATS results improved up until 2002.
 
In 2003, new members joined the school’s governing body including a parent, Mr Martin, and the local authority’s nominated governor, Mr Saleem, both of whom were Muslim. Mr Martin and Mr Saleem appeared to have an agenda to convert the school into a Muslim faith school. Between them, they sought to monopolise meetings and Mr Saleem’s approach extended to offensive verbal attacks. Mr Martin would often complain until he got his own way. He also made complaints of Islamophobia. In addition, he tried to stir up hostility in the local community by circulating a petition against Ms Connor.
 
Ms Connor had expressed concerns early on that she felt intimidated and was worried for the future of the school. The local authority was made aware of the problem in 2003 by the leader of governor services. Concerns were expressed about the impact this was having on Ms Connor’s health. Both Ms Connor and the chairman of the governing body had requested that the local authority investigate matters.
 
Ms Connor ceased working in September 2005 owing to stress and depression, which was attributed to her work environment and the lack of support from her employer. She subsequently issued proceedings against the local authority.
 

Decision

 
The court found Ms Connor to be an impressive witness, honest and balanced in her observations, with perceptive intelligence and sound judgement. To establish liability, Ms Connor had to prove (amongst other things) that the possibility of psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable by the local authority. 
 
There were warning signs that Ms Connor was stressed in 2004 and concerns had been expressed regarding the potential impact on her health. The local authority should have considered her to be a vulnerable person and provided more support rather than allowing her health to deteriorate. They owed her a duty not to expose her to unreasonable risk of psychiatric injury and should have foreseen that Ms Connor was at risk of injury from stress. It was then the duty of her local authority to put a stop to the situation ‘so far as was within their power.’
 
Due to the serious breakdown in the way the school was being governed, the local authority had the power to replace the existing governing body with an interim executive board. However, the local authority failed to exercise its powers of intervention. They should have issued a warning letter, enabling a new board to be set up. The local authority had failed to provide Ms Connor with the support she needed and had therefore breached its duty of care.
 
The High Court found in favour of Ms Connor and awarded her £387,778.22 in damages.
 

Comment

 
One of the guidelines laid down in the Hatton case is that no job is inherently more likely to cause stress than any other job. However, in this case the judge noted the fact that teachers have been known to be at risk of psychiatric injury and that many have been involved in stress cases. The local authority therefore should have been more vigilant in recognising stress and dealing with it appropriately. This suggests the nature of the work may lead to a differing standard of care.
 
It is important for employers to take note of this decision and consider how to deploy specialist support services. Employers need to be proactive and respond quickly and effectively to employees indicating that they are feeling stressed. Simply providing access to such support services may not be sufficient.
 
In this case, the court noted that the local authority could have utilised the occupational health department, together with a personnel consultant who was employed to arrange the provision of support for head teachers and their staff especially in problem situations. The court commented that the local authority “armed with such knowledge and despite repeated warnings of the presence of stress and its possible consequences … appear to have ploughed on regardless, as if hoping that the risk would go away despite the increasing pressures their conduct and failure to act brought to bear on those who were vulnerable”. Human resources and occupational health teams will therefore need to work closely to ensure that action is taken at an early stage.
 
Claims in relation to work-related stress will depend on the specific facts of the case. Employers should document their considerations, recommendations and actions as soon as they become aware of an employee showing clear signs of stress. This is particularly relevant in the current economic climate where the likelihood is that more and more employees are suffering from stress.
 
 
For further advice, please contact Richard White, specialist employment solicitor at Withy King, on 01865 268636 or email [email protected]
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