Employment Review: May 2015 – Managing stress in the workplace – when is an injury foreseeable?
Where an employee brings a claim for psychiatric illness caused by stress in the workplace, an employer will not be liable for damages where the employee’s injury was not reasonably foreseeable by the employer. The question of foreseeability has been explored in a recent High Court case, Easton v B&Q Plc.
The case concerned Mr Easton, the manager of a B&Q store in Romford. In May 2010, shortly after overseeing a substantial and successful refurbishment exercise, Mr Easton was diagnosed with depression. He ceased work and was treated with medication. After 5 months’ absence B&Q arranged a phased return to work at a quieter store, but Mr Easton was again signed off with depression. He subsequently brought claims against B&Q.
The Court held that Mr Easton’s initial illness was not reasonably foreseeable by B&Q. Mr ,Easton had spent 10 years managing large retail outlets with no history of psychiatric problems, and none of his colleagues thought he was at risk of psychiatric illness. No other B&Q managers had suffered from similar conditions during the previous decade. There was therefore no indication from Mr Easton’s background or his working environment that put B&Q on notice of a risk.
In respect of the phased return, the Court accepted that B&Q was now aware that Mr Easton was vulnerable to a psychiatric illness. However, for Mr Easton to establish employer liability for his illness required him to show that B&Q could have reasonably foreseen an illness caused by work-related stress.
Although Mr Easton continued to take medication, the Court found he had told B&Q he was well enough to return to work and that he wanted to do so. Mr Easton had sought to rely on the lack of a risk assessment but the Court found that B&Q was entitled to take Mr Easton’s comments at face value and had no obligation to make searching or intrusive enquiries. In particular, an employee who returns to work after a period of sickness without qualification is usually implying that he believes himself to be fit to return to the work he was doing before.
B&Q had acted appropriately in allowing an experienced manager to assess Mr Easton’s suitability to return to work. B&Q also had a policy in place about managing stress, inviting employees to notify them of any symptoms, which Mr Easton had not done.
The decision in this case confirms that employees must jump a high bar to establish that a psychiatric illness caused by workplace stress was reasonably foreseeable. The ruling is helpful for employers, but stress cases will always turn on their specific facts. To strengthen their position against similar claims, employers should put in place appropriate policies addressing management of stress in the workplace and ensure that they are properly applied in practice.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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