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Commercial Question

Stressing Out About Employee Stress Levels

updated on 01 February 2005

Question

More and more employees are being diagnosed with stress and are bringing claims against their employers. What steps should employers take to avoid being held legally liable for such claims?

Answer

Work-related stress is becoming increasingly prevalent. Each year, it is estimated to cost the UK economy some £7 billion and account for 6.5 million lost working days. Stress is often referred to as the modern 'backache' because, for many organisations, absence caused by stress is a massive drain on resources and a real impediment to the smooth functioning of that organisation.

In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile claims brought by employees against their employers for stress-related injuries. Among other things, the employees complain about lack of support in the workplace, too much work, and long working hours. The question for the courts in these cases has been whether an employer is liable for psychiatric harm suffered by the employee.

The Court of Appeal set out guidance for when an employer will be liable in the case of Sutherland v Hatton (2002 IRLR 263). However, the House of Lords subsequently emphasized in Barber v Somerset County Council (2004 2 All ER 385) that, while this guidance is useful, each case must be considered on its own facts. Ultimately, the question is whether the employer knew or ought to have known about the risk to the employee and, if so, whether the employer then took reasonable steps to prevent the employee suffering harm. If not, the employer will be liable.

As a result of these judicial developments, more employers are taking extra measures to protect themselves against such claims. Such measures include:

  • offering confidential counselling services and 'return to work' interviews when employees return from stress-related absences;
  • ensuring that appropriate systems of supervision and monitoring are in place; and
  • adjusting hours, work type or work amount as appropriate.

Philippa Shorthouse is a practical lawyer at Eversheds who specialises in both contentious and non-contentious employment law. She has specific experience in large-scale redundancies, data protection, discrimination, TUPE, breach of contract, restrictive covenants, unfair dismissal, and all HR procedures and polices.