The widely reported payment of £300,000 by Shropshire County Council in settlement of a claim by a teacher arising from alleged stress at work has highlighted this burgeoning area of litigation. The National Union of Teachers has announced that it alone is currently processing 150 such claims.
There are distinct advantages for the employee in pursuing a claim for damages in the Civil Court rather than applying to the Employment Tribunal alleging constructive dismissal. There is no statutory cap on the damages which may be awarded by the Civil Court whereas the Tribunal’s power to order a compensatory payment is capped at £50,000. There is also a three year time limit for bringing a civil action as opposed to a three month time limit for an Employment Tribunal claim.
Whilst the number of formally reported Court decisions in this area is still limited, some clear principles are beginning to emerge. Firstly it must have been clearly foreseeable to the employer that working conditions were likely to cause the employee to suffer a stress related illness. Employees are therefore most likely to succeed where they have specifically drawn their employer’s attention to pressures at work and the effects on their health and the employer has failed to carry out adequate remedial measures. Secondly the effects on the employee must be such as to constitute a psychiatric illness. It is accepted that most, if not all, employees may experience symptoms of stress at times. Legal liability will only arise where the symptoms are of sufficient severity and duration to constitute a medically diagnosable illness.
To reduce the risk of potential claims employers should at the very least:
- Take effective steps to eliminate practices such as work place bullying which are avoidable causes of stress.
- Ensure employees are properly trained for the tasks they are expected to undertake.
- Ensure supervisory staff respond to any indications from an employee that aspects of their work are causing them stress and take such remedial action as is practical and appropriate.
- Monitor carefully the working conditions of any employee who has been absent from work with a stress related illness.