According to many of my clients there has been an increase in
reports of stress at work, absence due to stress related conditions and
termination of employment for the same.
Many reasons are offered as to why this might be the case. Perhaps we are more aware of our
psychological health. Perhaps some of
the taboo of psychiatric illness has fallen away. Perhaps the workplace has become more stressful. Perhaps being signed off with stress is a
convenient way to avoid difficult work place situations. Whatever the reason there is no doubt that
legal advisers working with employers and employees need to be aware of the
duties arising in these situations[i].
In the recent High Court decision Mr Justice William Davis had to
determine whether or not B&Q had been in breach of a duty of care to their
employee Mr Easton. Mr Easton was a high
performing manager at B&Q who was diagnosed with depression in May 2010 and
was unable to work thereafter. Mr
Easton was an experienced manager of large retail stores who had managed the
pressures of such work over a considerable period without experiencing any
undue stress relating to his work.
Mr Easton’s claim in the High Court focused on issues in the store
around a refurbishment, a restructure in relation to staff hours and the handling
of Mr Easton’s return to work.
The judgment contains detailed findings on the facts and of course
every case of this naturally is highly fact specific however it also serves as
a helpful reminder to advisers on some common issues[ii].
Much of what is said in these cases is common sense. Employers need to look after the mental
health of their employees: it is good for business, good for the economy and
good for society. Employees must also
look after their mental health including using established processes for raising
concerns and seeking help as required. Effective
management of people involves two-way communication. Whoever we are asked to advise we should
start with the questions: what do we know; what do we need to know; have we asked
for it? Whether it be assistance in a
job or medical advice in relation to how to handle a situation – if we do not
ask we cannot complain if we do not receive.
[i] This comment does not address situations where the psychiatric illness
meets the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Many situations may well be covered by this
[ii] The leading authority in respect of psychiatric injury caused by stress
in the workplace remains Hatton v Sutherland  ICR 613 in
particular paragraph 43 which was expressly relied upon in this case. For advisers this paragraph should always be