A Court of Appeal has dismissed an argument from an employer defendant who argued that the availability of a workplace counselling service was sufficient to comply with a duty to protect an employee’s health and safety.
A female employee with a history of depression had brought a personal injury claim against her employers after suffering a nervous breakdown that she alleged was caused by being overworked and stressed.
As her workload became considerably heavier over a number of months, the claimant complained to her employer about the problems she was facing on at least 14 separate occasions. At this point, she also wrote a memo to management explaining how stressed she was by her workload and the lack of support received.
Despite being told that the work team would be reorganised and an additional employee taken on, no changes were made and her health continued to deteriorate. The claimant visited her GP and the company doctor over the following weeks and, after leaving work a month later, tried to commit suicide the next day.
Claimant’s breakdown would probably have been prevented
At the initial High Court hearing, the judge accepted that the company did not know at the outset that the employee was prone to work-related psychiatric problems as a result of post-natal depression. The court also accepted that a reasonable employer could not have foreseen earlier on that there was "a real risk of injury" to her health.
However, the judge did consider that the company ought to have known by a later stage that the demands it was making were "totally unreasonable and that the risk of harm to her health was clear". The claimant’s breakdown would probably have been prevented if the company had made the necessary changes to her work schedule at that point.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the conclusions of the High Court that management failures were responsible for creating the stresses, which led to the employee’s breakdown. The Appeal judge also agreed that the employee’s problems could only be dealt with by reducing her workload.
In the court’s view, the company could not avoid its obligations by the provision of counsellors - whose advice to the management on the action they already knew was required would not have made any difference. The defendant’s argument that she did not resign when suffering from stress at work was also found to be irrelevant.
The Court of Appeal found that the company was liable for the employee’s depression and awarded her £134,000 damages.