Easton v B&Q: High Court rules employer is not liable for stress-related psychiatric illness
Claims for stress at work normally fall within the personal injury sector, so are dealt with by the employer’s liability insurers. But you need to know what’s expected of your business to avoid liability.
Stress itself is not an injury. But if the stress causes injuries, particularly mental health injuries such as anxiety and depression, and this is caused by an employer’s negligence then this can lead to a personal injury claim against the employer.
Employers are under a duty to take care of the health, safety and welfare of their employees. If they’re negligent in this duty, it can lead to a successful claim for an employee.
Health and Safety legislation and HSE guidance requires employers to consider any risks of ill health due to stress that they become aware of, evaluate and take steps to reduce or avoid these risks, and to monitor these on an ongoing basis.
The two main causes of stress at work in employment are excessive workload and bullying/harassment. It’s up to the employee to prove the cause of their injury.
Usually, if bullying/harassment are proven, it’s easier to show that this has caused a psychiatric injury rather than excessive workload where the link between the two is harder to show.
It’s up to the employee to show the injury was foreseeable by the employer. This is the point where most ‘stress at work’ cases fall down, particularly when they’re caused by the pressures of work.
The Courts have been reluctant to uphold that an employer can foresee an excessive workload will cause a psychiatric injury. Unless the employer is on notice of the employee’s susceptibility to such an injury (i.e. because of an absence from work already due to an injury caused by work pressures).
Easton v B&Q
Mr Easton was a manager for B&Q. He was a good performer at work, but became ill with diagnosed depression which was caused by being stressed at work.
He was absent for five months during which time he received therapy and treatment. He came back on a phased return and placed at a store closer to his home.
Ultimately, he became too ill to work due to the depression and he sued for the injury plus loss of earnings.
He said it was because his employer was negligent in failing to do a risk assessment on him when he returned to work. And that his final relapse was foreseeable because of his previous absence.
The Court found that when Mr Easton returned to work, there was no obligation on the employer to ask questions or make intrusive enquiries about his mental health. And after the phased return, they were entitled to conclude that Mr Easton considered himself well enough to be at work undertaking the job.
This is true even if he was taking medication as many people undertake demanding jobs whilst on medication. Had they been on notice that there was a further problem it would have been foreseeable, but they were not.
The Court took into account that B&Q had a document for employees about managing stress and notifying the employer with symptoms which Mr Easton had not done.
The Court did not view that B&Q could know that a risk assessment was necessary when Mr Easton considered himself well enough to be at work. Even if they had done one, it would not have informed them of Mr Easton’s ultimate relapse.
What this case means for you
As HR advisors or employers, these types of cases should normally be dealt with by your insurers. It’s worth speaking with your insurers about what standards they expect from you in managing stress in the workplace to enable them to successfully defend claims.
This case shows that the onus is on the employee to bring their work-related stress injury to the attention of their employer. However, it doesn’t remove the employer’s need to be vigilant and have policies and procedures in place.
As well as being foreseeable, the employee still has to prove the employer was negligent (i.e. that legislation was breached or a duty of care was not being fulfilled). They also have to show causation. This is more difficult if there are personal problems or a history of anxiety and depression pre-dating this job.
An employer must also consider disability discrimination. They must make reasonable adjustments, ensure they don’t treat the employee unfairly or differently to others and follow proper procedures before dismissing on the grounds of incapability to avoid any unfair dismissal or disability discrimination claims.
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