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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Workplace stress - Part 3

General criminal law

There are no reported prosecutions for specific criminal offences in relation to workplace stress. In relation to bullying, there may be potential liability for assault and under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Human rights

The Human Rights Act 1998 does not deal with social and economic matters. There is no right to work, no right to health and safety and no right not to be subjected to stress in the workplace.

General duty of employers

The general principle is that English courts have recognised that workplace stress can cause mental illness. They accept the principle that employers have a duty to ensure their employees’ psychological health.

An example is the case of McLoughlin v O’Brien (1982), a House of Lords decision which dealt with the recovery of compensation by a mother who had not witnessed the road accident which caused the death of one of her children and injury to her husband and other children, but had been told about the accident and taken to hospital to see the survivors. The court made the following points, which have general relevance to workplace stress:

  • The difficulty of the subject arose from the fact that answers to the questions that it raised lay in the field of psychiatric medicine.

  • the common law gave no damages for emotional distress that a normal person experienced when a loved one was killed or injured.

  • Anxiety and depression were normal human emotions.

  • An anxiety neurosis or a reactive depression might be a recognisable psychiatric illness, with or without psychosomatic symptoms.

  • The first hurdle which a claimant must surmount is that he is suffering a positive psychiatric illness and not merely grief, distress or any other normal emotion.

  • When causation is in issue, it must be determined by the judge on the basis of the medical evidence.

  • Physical injuries can give rise to organic and psychiatric disorders.

  • Acute emotional trauma can cause psychiatric illness.

  • It is only by giving effect to these insights in the developing law of negligence that we can do justice to an important, though no doubt small, class of plaintiffs, whose genuine psychiatric illnesses are caused by negligent defendants.


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