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Occupational stress – when are employers liable?

Occupational stress claims (often referred to as ‘stress at work’) are cases where an employee has suffered a psychiatric injury because of pressures or stresses experienced in the workplace.

‘Occupational stress’ is a label that describes the background against which the psychiatric illness has developed rather than an indication of a particular type of illness.

The Health and Safety Executive defines work-related stress as the ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work’. Common causes of occupational stress are:

  • excessive hours, workloads or demands;
  • lack of job security;
  • bullying or harassment;
  • poor working conditions;
  • poor training or management;
  • lack of control over all the above.

Any recognised psychiatric illness that has foreseeably developed because of stresses encountered in the workplace can, in principle, give rise to an occupational stress claim. If the employee is simply suffering from occupational stress (i.e., stress at work), but does not have a recognisable psychiatric injury, she or he will not have a claim for compensation for injury and losses.

To successfully establish legal liability in an occupational stress claim the claimant must show that:

  • the employer failed to provide a safe place of work;
  • the occupational stress that the employee was subjected to was sufficient to create a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury;
  • the employer failed to do all that they reasonably could to prevent the occupational stress from arising;
  • the employee suffered a psychiatric illness as a direct result of their occupational stress.

When assessing whether the employer is liable, the court will consider whether the employer’s conduct fell below the standard expected of a reasonable and prudent employer taking positive steps for the safety of its workers in light of what the employer knew or ought to have known. This is important – if the employer was unaware of the stress the employee was under, the claim will fail.

When considering whether there has been a breach of duty the court will require evidence of:

  • the nature and extent of the tasks required of the employee (including details of any deadlines and targets);
  • the results of any health surveillance the employer had in place;
  • any complaints made by the employee or other members of staff undertaking a similar role to the employer;
  • the employee’s occupational health records showing any periods of absence or sickness;
  • the employee’s personnel file with the minutes of any meetings relating to workloads/working environment/management/bullying issues;
  • any medical records or reports which were or should have been available to the employer;
  • any preventative/reactive measures put in place by the employer to reduce occupational stress.

In extreme cases, the employee may have a possible claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, although she or he must demonstrate that the behaviour which caused the injury was serious and of a level which would attract a criminal liability. A claim under this Act will involve a course of conduct (not just a single incident) that the employer knows, or ought to know, amounts to harassment. This conduct can consist of a combination of actions by various individual employees and the employer will be liable for that conduct.

The statutory protection provided by Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, imposes a duty to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment which extends to the risk of stress arising from a working activity. In circumstances where there is a known vulnerability in an individual the failure to carry out any risk assessment can be an indication of a breach of duty. Following the introduction of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, civil liability will no longer arise automatically from a breach of statutory duty (it is also necessary to establish negligence), however such statutory duties continue to be relevant to the question of what an employer ought reasonably to do.

A clam for compensation for occupational stress (where there is no harassment) must be concluded or Court proceedings commenced within three years from the date of injury. The time limit for bringing a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act is six years.


Your key contact

Lee Hart

Personal Injury Team Manager

Lee works closely with severely injured people and their families, leading them through the claims process and ensuring they get the best treatment, rehabilitation and care so that they can get their lives back on track as quickly as possible.
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