Four tips for a successful ‘stress at work’ claim

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Mark GoreSenior Associate

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Four tips for a successful ‘stress at work’ claim

Employers have a legal duty to take reasonable care for the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. Many jobs involve a certain amount of pressure and can be stressful from time-to-time, but high levels of stress can significantly impact an employee’s health and wellbeing and in some cases result in psychiatric injury.   

Brachers has seen an increase in the number of stress at work claims veering away from the more common issue of excessive workloads. For example, recent claims have ranged from employees feeling a lack of support and care, to those suffering assaults, bullying or harassment. 

While each claim will be decided on facts, there is established criteria which must be met when bringing a claim for stress at work. The employee must:

  • In the absence of any physical injury, have suffered a recognised psychiatric illness, rather than simply suffering stress
  • Be able to establish that their employer was negligent by showing their employer’s conduct or lack of conduct amounted to a breach of their legal duty to take reasonable care of the employee’s health, safety and wellbeing
  • Their working situation must have presented a real risk of causing recognised psychiatric illness which must, on the balance of probabilities, have been caused by the employee’s exposure to stress at work and the employer’s negligence and breach of duty. This is opposed to other stress-related issues in the employee’s life, eg relationship issues, financial problems, bereavement, problems with children, etc
  • Prove their employer ought to have reasonably foreseen that the employee was at risk of suffering a psychiatric illness as a result of their conduct or lack of conduct. This is usually the most difficult to establish

In bullying cases, a client would still need to establish foreseeability - a requirement by law that the consequences of a party’s action or inaction could reasonably result in the injury - unless the claim can be brought under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. In such cases, it is not necessary for an employee to establish that it was reasonably foreseeable to their employer that they may be at risk of suffering injury.  In order to bring this type of claim, the behaviour must have occurred on at least two occasions, been targeted at the employee, be calculated objectively to cause distress and be objectively judged to be oppressive and unreasonable. 

Recent cases Brachers has successfully completed

Sexual assault at a university

Our Personal Injury Team acted for a university student who was sexually assaulted by a fellow student living in the room next to hers. The university failed to act following reports of the assault and failed to relocate or remove the fellow student, resulting in the claimant suffering significant psychiatric injury and being unable to complete her studies. 

Physical assault in the public sector

Brachers acted for a claimant employed in adult services by a local authority. He was asked to see a visitor to their reception, who was the son and carer of an adult within their service. On doing so, the visitor became agitated and physically assaulted the claimant.

Following the assault, it became apparent that the local authority had been fully aware prior to this incident that this person had previously displayed hostile behaviour but had failed to properly assess the risk he posed to members of staff or to put in place appropriate measures to ensure staff were kept safe or to minimise the risk. In addition, his employers failed to put in place an adequate system to address the impact of the assault upon him following the incident, resulting in an exacerbation in his psychiatric injury. 

Witness to traumatic incidents in the workplace

We recently acted for a claimant who suffered significant psychiatric injury as a result of his employer’s failure to provide proper support after he witnessed a number of traumatic incidents within the course of his work. 

Verbal abuse in a care home

In a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, Brachers acted for an employee at a residential care home who experienced frequent abusive language and unacceptable comments from a fellow employee, who also refused to accept instructions from her at work. The claimant made a formal complaint about the conduct of her fellow employee, following which a formal disciplinary investigation was carried out which led to her colleague being dismissed.

The colleague’s mother also worked at the home and she repeatedly discussed her daughter’s disciplinary case with others within the earshot of the claimant and made comments about the claimant to the extent that it became clear that the claimant’s identity as the whistle-blower in relation to her daughter’s behaviour, had been made known by her employers. As a result, the claimant suffered panic attacks and psychiatric injury. Despite this continuing unacceptable behaviour, the care home simply turned a blind eye and took no action to address this and allowed the claimant to continue to be subjected to many months of bullying and harassment from her fellow employee.