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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Workplace stress- Part 9

Duty to provide safe system of work

Two nervous breakdowns

Walker v Northumberland County Council [1995] IRLR 35, High Court

W, a senior social worker, was employed by NCC for 17 years. He was responsible for four teams of social services fieldworkers. In 1986 he suffered a mental breakdown following a significant increase in his workload. He had unsuccessfully attempted to persuade NCC to increase staff and/or to provide guidance as to work distribution or prioritisation. He was off work for four months. When he returned to work he was offered no additional support. W suffered a second breakdown which resulted in his dismissal for permanent ill-health.

W claimed compensation for NCC for breach of its duty to take reasonable steps to avoid exposing him to a workload which endangered his health.

The decision of the High Court was as follows:

• W’s claim succeeded

• There was no logical reason why the risk of psychiatric damage should be excluded from the scope of an employer’s duty to provide his employee with a reasonably safe system of work and to take reasonable steps to protect hum from risks which were reasonably foreseeable

• NCC had been well aware that W was under extreme pressure of work

• The question was whether it ought to have foreseen that W was exposed to a risk of mental illness materially higher than that which would normally affect a senior social worker with a really heavy workload

• In respect of the second breakdown, NCC should have foreseen that there was a risk that W’s career would come to an end

• NCC should has appreciated that W was distinctly more vulnerable to psychiatric damage than he had been before the first breakdown

• In these circumstances, additional assistance should have been provided

• In not providing such assistance, NCC had been in breach of their common law duty of care

• Having regard to the size of the risk of a repetition of W’s illness, the standard of care expected of a reasonable local authority required that NCC should have taken measures to ensure that W’s workload was permanently reduced.

Note: this case is one of the most significant common law decisions dealing with workplace stress. It has been described as the origin of the liability of employers in negligence where employees suffer stress-related illnesses as a result of workplace conditions.

Reasonable steps by employer

Stress caused by overwork

Petch v Commissioners of Customs and Excise (1993) Court of Appeal, February 19

P was a senior civil servant who suffered a mental breakdown. He returned to work but was transferred to another post. Eight years later he became ill again and he was retired on medical grounds in 1986. He claimed compensation in negligence from his employer. It was argued on his behalf that the breakdown had resulted from his working conditions, in particular stress caused by overwork and that his later illness was the result of the first breakdown. At first instance, the High Court ruled that the employer was not liable and made the following points:

• P was a manic depressive. This was a genetic matter

• P had established that his breakdown was a result of conditions at his work.

P appealed to the Court of Appeal. That court made the following points:

• An employer has a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that employees’ mental health is not adversely affected by overwork or stress at work

• P’s breakdown had been caused by his working conditions, in particular overwork

• His employer could not reasonably have been expected to know that P suffered from manic depression

• P’s employer had made efforts to persuade him to take sick leave and had transferred his to a less stressful job. The transfer had been tactfully handled and was the obvious solution to an intractable problem

• In the circumstances, the employer could not be said to have been negligent

• It was clear that the duty of an employer to take care that an employee’s duties did not damage his heath extended to mental as well as to physical health

• In the present case, on the facts, the employer had not been in breach of that duty.

Reasonable care

Employee working alone

Williams v Outline Design Ltd (1999) Newport county court, August 8

W, who had been employed as an upholsterer for 30 years by OD, had worked as part of a team. All his colleagues took voluntary redundancy in 1993. W carried on with his work for OD on the understanding that he would work alone. This made him feel isolated and rejected. He claimed that the resulting stress led to his collapse at work in 1994. He sought compensation from his employers, arguing that they could and should have placed him in a team and that it was their duty to do so when they became aware that he was not happy working alone.

The county court decided the following:

• W’s claim failed

• OD had complied with their duty to take reasonable care to protect W from a reasonable risk of injury or illness

• It had not been reasonably foreseeable that the change in W’s system of work would make him ill

• There had been no indication that W was under any undue stress or was at risk of psychiatric illness

• W was a normal person. There was no evidence that he had suffered from a psychiatric illness in the past

• It had not been reasonably foreseeable that work conditions had been such as to cause psychiatric illness.


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