UK: Millions Of Working Days Lost To Stress

Last Updated: 1 April 2001
Article by Cath Thorpe

Claims relating to work-related stress were unheard of 10 years ago but are now rising at an alarming rate. A recent Health and Safety Executive survey established that one in five respondents were "very" or "extremely" stressed at work.

Although few cases have been determined by the courts, a number of large settlements have been reached. In 1998 East Essex Mental Health Trust paid £25,000 to the widow of one of its nurses who committed suicide because of stress at work. More recently in December 2000, Janice Howell, a teacher, reached a settlement with Newport Borough Council after suffering two breakdowns as a result of "intolerable" working conditions. She received £254,000.

In addition to the cost of defending such actions and meeting the awards made, employers are faced with the expense and administrative burden of covering for employees who take long periods of time off sick due to stress-related problems. Stress is the second largest category of occupational illness, with 18 million days lost each year due to mental illness.

What is stress ?

According to the Health and Safety Executive, stress is the reaction people have to excessive pressures or other demands placed on them. The likely factors which will lead to occupational stress include:

  • increased workload with fewer staff l perceived lack of influence over decision making l low level of autonomy
  • low levels of social support
  • climate of rapid change
  • less job security
  • poor working conditions
  • long hours
  • re-organisation
  • bullying

Stress is not a disease, although it can lead to both physical and mental ill heath if it is not dealt with adequately.

The employer’s legal responsibility

Employers are under a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of employees in the workplace. If there is a failure to provide such protection and an employee suffers physical or mental injury as a consequence, he may attempt to seek damages from his employer. Although it remains relatively difficult for employees to bring successful claims in negligence for stress related ill heath, employees suffering from stress are increasingly pursuing employment related claims .

One of the few negligence claims to succeed was Walker v Northumberland County Council. Mr Walker, a social worker with a heavy caseload of child abuse cases, suffered a breakdown due to the pressures of the job. When he returned to work, his employer failed to reduce his workload as promised and Mr Walker suffered a further breakdown. The High Court held that the employer was liable for the psychiatric damage caused by stress but only in respect of the second breakdown. The court decided that it was not reasonably foreseeable that the first breakdown would occur. The employer paid £175,000 to Mr Walker.

In every contract of employment there is an implied term of mutual trust and confidence. If the employer’s conduct towards the employee is such that it amounts to a fundamental breach of this implied term, the employee is entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal. In Gogay v Hertfordshire County Council, Mrs Gogay suffered stress-related ill health after she was suspended on grounds of suspected child abuse. The Court of Appeal decided that her employer did not have reasonable grounds to suspend her and that the employer had breached the implied term of trust and confidence. They held that damages for such a breach could include compensation for psychiatric illness.

In order to recover damages for stress, however, the employee must be able to show that he has suffered a clinically well recognised psychiatric illness. It is not enough to feel under the weather or slightly depressed. The disorder must be recognised by one of the two main diagnostic classification systems used by psychiatrists.

In Fraser v State Hospitals Board for Scotland, the court decided that it was not the employer’s duty to protect an employee from unpleasant emotions such as grief, anger, resentment, or "normal human conditions such as anxiety or stress". The duty of care owed by the State Hospitals Board was to take reasonable care to avoid exposing the employee to the risk of psychiatric damage.

Avoiding a claim

Following a public consultation exercise, the Health and Safety Commission have concluded that work related stress is a serious health and safety issue which can be tackled in part through the application of health and safety legislation. The Commission is currently drafting a code of practice which will set out management standards for the prevention of work-related stress.

Clearly, it is necessary for all employers to identify and deal with those employees who are suffering from stress. It is important for managers to maintain a dialogue with the employees for whom they are responsible in order to detect the symptoms of stress at an early stage.

Managers must assess their own work habits to ensure that they are not creating unnecessary pressures. It is imperative to implement health and safety policies which include risk assessments and which focus on the practices and pressures that can lead to stress. Preventative strategies must be put in place. Bullies should not be tolerated and should be disciplined. There needs to be a genuine commitment from senior management towards changing those practices which cause pressure and anxiety.

If these issues are not tackled, there will be far more successful claims for compensation. But there are other reasons for reducing work-related stress. Increased absence due to stress-related illness inevitably places additional pressure on colleagues and resources, which in turn causes stress. All of this is, of course, in addition to the detriment, caused by stress, on the individual employee and his family life.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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