Imagine you’re in a job where you’ve had to work long hours under high pressure over a couple of years and without any sign of change.
You’ve complained to your superiors about the increasing workload, both in person and via email.
You’ve requested an immediate increase in staffing levels.
You’re swamped with work but no help arrives.
Your health deteriorates to the point where you suffer a nervous breakdown because of the pressure.
You are off work for several months.
Before you go back to work, you have a meeting with your superiors about the causes of your ill-health – the main one being your workload. They reassure you by offering you help with your work from a fellow employee.
On your return to work, you find that only a few of your files have been covered by co-workers in your absence. The paperwork has been allowed to build-up. Worse, the colleague allocated to help you is moved to other duties within a month of your restart. The workload continues to increase. It’s an impossible situation and you can’t cope.
You suffer a second mental breakdown and this time it leaves you permanently unfit for work. Your employers dismiss you on the ground of your incapacity.
Can you claim compensation from your former employers for the injury you have suffered? How easy are stress at work claims to make?
Stress at work – a confusing term
We get a lot of enquiries about potential “stress at work” claims.
It doesn’t help that the term “stress at work” is confusing.
It gives the impression that it’s much easier to make a successful claim for compensation for work-related stress than it is in reality.
What is stress at work?
“Stress” is our natural reaction to excessive pressure – or other demands – placed upon us.
One Scottish judge defined occupational stress as “the result of a mismatch between the demands of the job and the resources of the person expected to meet those demands.”
Stress is not an illness in itself but prolonged or intense stress can cause both mental and physical ill-health.
The category of “stress at work” claims generally covers situations where the pressures of the job upon a worker have caused them to suffer a mental breakdown.
Though claims for stress at work have been widely publicised, very few have succeeded in the courts.
A typical stress at work scenario
A pattern has emerged in reported cases in the UK.
Often, the injured person has an initial period of time off work.
Before that absence, the employer might not even have been aware that their employee was getting stressed due working conditions.
However, once the employee is off work for the first time, there is discussion about the reasons and the employer is then definitely aware that their employee is someone who is at risk from harm from stress at work.
The employee returns to work, supposedly on improved, healthier working conditions.
If the employer fails to honour the promised changes and the employee has a further breakdown, it is at that point that liability can arise.
The example at the beginning of this article fits the mould of the sort of facts which could give rise to a successful claim. It’s based on the 1994 case of Walker -v- Northumberland County Council.
Foreseeability of psychiatric injury, not stress itself
The main difficulty with individual stress at work claims is in providing the necessary proof that the employee’s mental breakdown was reasonably foreseeable.
It is the indications of impending breakdown, not stress itself, which establishes a claim.
Unless you can demonstrate that mental injury was foreseeable in the circumstances, your claim will not succeed.
Unfortunately, many people suffer breakdowns and depressive illness and a significant number of them would no doubt say that their work situation played a part – for example –
- Problematic relationships with co-workers
- Worries about job security
- Fear of discrimination
The difficulty for individual cases is that you need to be able to show there was a real risk of mental breakdown. You also need to be able to show that your employers ought to have foreseen that risk – because they were aware of factors which made you susceptible to mental injury. And you need to be able to show there were steps they could reasonably have taken which would probably have prevented your breakdown.
Because stress at work compensation claims are so difficult to win, in practice, it’s worthwhile considering options for prevention, rather than the “cure” of making a claim.
The typical causes of stress at work leading to mental breakdown are:
- Excessive workload
- Long hours
- Work types which are inherently emotionally taxing
If you are experiencing a combination of these factors at work, you need to make sure you tell your employer – preferably, in writing – that it is having a negative effect on you.
If you have to consult your GP about your problems, make sure you explain to him or her that your stress is work-related.
Your principal hope will be that your employer realises your working conditions are unacceptable and implements measures which reduce your stress, so you do not suffer any lasting ill-effects and don’t have to give any further consideration to a possible personal injury claim.
If your employer fails to react, however, at least your complaints will help to lay the basis for a possible stress at work claim.
The kinds of things courts will look for to prove that your eventual mental breakdown ought to have been foreseeable to your employer include
- You having made complaints to your employer about the intolerable pressures you are experiencing
- Evidence of absences from work which are supported by sick notes which indicate that the time off is work stress related
- The fact that your work colleagues have suffered similar work stress related ill health
- Evidence that previous holders of your post suffered similar health problems to you
How we can help
We hope this article has helped you understand a bit better about –
- the legal basis for stress at work claims,
- why they are “difficult” claims,
- why you’re probably better to concentrate your efforts on complaints to your employer rather than putting up quietly with your deteriorating health and
- the practical steps you can take to lay the foundations for a claim should you be unfortunate enough to end up in that position.
All initial enquiries are free of charge and there’s no pressure on you to take things further.