- May 27, 2022
- By Nina Brennan
- 0 comments
Occupational Stress Claims
Mental health awareness has been steadily increasing over the last decade but there is still a long way to go. The last few years have seen an increase in occupational stress and it goes without saying that the pandemic has only worsened the situation for many people. The latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive reveal that during the pandemic there were a total of 822,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
What legal remedies are available?
There are a number of options which may be available to employees who believe they have suffered stress at work. They may seek to pursue a claim against their employer for compensation either in the civil courts (for personal injury, breach of contract and/or under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997) or in the Employment Tribunals (for constructive unfair dismissal and/or discrimination). Consideration of the merits and disadvantages of pursuing a claim in a given forum lies outside the remit of this blog. Any decision to opt for one route over another will ultimately depend on the facts of an individual case.
Instead, this blog will focus on what is needed to establish a personal injury claim for occupational stress.
The elements of an occupational stress claim
To succeed in a claim for stress at work the Claimant must establish the legal criteria as set out in the leading Court of Appeal case of Hatton v Sutherland (2002). The three main elements of this are set out below.
- Psychiatric Injury vs Stress
Whilst the causes of work-related stress can be many and varied (from excessive workloads to lack of support, harassment or bullying) most people do not go on to develop a psychiatric injury that would be actionable in Court. This is because the law draws a distinction between general stress and psychiatric injury. This may come as somewhat of a surprise given the confusing terms “stress at work claim” or “occupational stress claim”. Nevertheless, the first thing that must be established is a diagnosis of a recognised psychiatric illness (such as PTSD, anxiety disorder or depression). A claim will not succeed if an employee has merely suffered stress.
- Breach Of Duty And Causation
Second, it must be shown that an employer has breached their duty of care to the employee. Employers owe employees various duties of care aimed at protecting them from a foreseeable risk of injury. Put briefly, these include maintaining a safe place and system of work, which extends to providing “safe” colleagues. In psychiatric injury claims the aim will usually be to prove that the workload to which an employee was exposed was excessive or inappropriate and that this was a breach of the duty of care. If there has also been bullying, it will usually be argued that there was a failure to protect the employee from “unsafe” colleagues.
It must of course also be proven that the particular breach of duty caused or materially contributed to the injury as opposed to something else i.e. non-work related stressors such as a bereavement or relationship breakdown.
Finally, an employer will not be found liable for any injury caused to the employee unless the injury was a foreseeable outcome of the breach. This third element of “foreseeability” is often the most difficult aspect to prove.
It goes without saying that psychiatric injury is much harder to anticipate or discern than physical injury. As a consequence, the question of foreseeability has been applied very strictly. The result is that, in reality, a claim will only succeed if an employee can show that their employer had clear, unequivocal notice of the problems they were having at work and that they were at risk of suffering from harm if they were not helped. Evidence of distress or complaints may not be enough. It is therefore often difficult to win a case based on the occurrence of a “first” breakdown.
Although not listed as an element per se of an occupational stress claim, it is still important to consider any possible limitation issues when deciding whether to bring a claim, particularly if there have been a number of instances of stress suffered at work over a long period of time. For psychiatric injuries the time limit is three years from the “date of knowledge”.
As noted above, occupational stress claims are not without their difficulties. In particular, the requirement of foreseeability can be difficult to overcome. However, as mental health awareness increases, so too do the obligations on employers to provide adequate support and undertake risk assessments in respect of their employees and the work they are doing. The pandemic has also changed work habits and structures. It remains to be seen to what extent this will lead to actionable claims for stress related injuries.* Disclaimer: The information on the Anthony Gold website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. It is provided without any representations or warranties, express or implied.*
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