Many of you may be unaware that it is happening until it is too late – that stress in your workplace in having a negative effect on your mental health. It is an area that needs your consideration, particularly now when we are conscious of “minding our jobs” and pressure can intensify. You need to mind your job, but you also need to ensure that you are not in a situation where you are under undue stress at work. After all, one impacts on the other. Where does the law draw the line?
According to the Irish Health and Safety Authority workplace stress occurs “when the demands of the job and the working environment on a person exceeds their capacity to meet them”. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has identified common causes of occupational stress including lack of training, dull repetitive work or highly demanding work, poor working relationships, poor working environment such as lack of space and noise, job insecurity, inadequate time to complete a job properly, no recognition for doing well and uncooperative colleagues. Does the law take account of this kind of stress and will it do anything about it?
Employer’s duty towards Employees
Employers and employees have a mutual obligation that they conduct themselves in a manner that is not likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of confidence and trust between them. Traditionally, this duty applied to the physical safety of employees, as laid down in Safety, Health and Welfare Work Act, 2005. More recently, it has been recognised that an employers liability extends to psychological or psychiatric illness which arises due to stress in the employees working environment. Many of you may have assumed that a workplace injury is a physical injury only.
In addition to this contractual duty there is also a general duty in tort to take care for the welfare of an employee. If the employee suffers as a result of the actions of the employer there is a duty on the employer and there could be a cause of action. Consider whether your employer is fulfilling his duties.
Take for example, an employee for an airline who is at a check-in desk. If flights are delayed and people are irate, would the employee have a case of workplace stress? The answer, as is usually the case is – it depends! The Courts are very careful about defining what are expected and reasonable consequences of working in a particular environment. The Courts apply a common sense standard which measures whether a certain amount of stress is part of the job. e.g. a person who is a Complaints Manager can hardly complain about receiving complaints! However, where there are no procedures in place and very little training and if the employer is asking the employee to deal with an impossible situation on an ongoing basis – that is a very different situation. Is the stress you are experiencing at work reasonable as a part of your job or does it go beyond reasonable?
Effects of Workplace Stress for Employers
The effects of workplace stress for employers are numerous and varied and include an employee’s inability to relax or take a break leading to burnout, low morale, increased absenteeism, higher accident rates and the risk of legal action taken by employee(s) with occupational stress. Employers – occupational stress can damage your company as well as your employee(s).
Compensation for Occupational Stress
In Sweeney -v- Ballinteer Community School a teacher was awarded €88,000 as aggraveated damages by the High Court against the board of management of a school because of the school principal’s “deliberate and conscious” bullying and harassment of her. The principal even hired a private investigator to follow her, which Mr. Justice Daniel Herbert said amounted to “most serious harassment”.
Based on the evidence the High Court established that the teacher suffered psychiatric illness, clinical depression, arising from the continuous bullying by the school principal. The injury was reasonably foreseeable by the principal and there was a breach of the employer’s duty of care towards the teacher.
This case highlights that because occupational stress can be regarded as a personal injury, compensation will reflect the adverse effect it has on your wellbeing, more effectively than if it were treated as an employment claim.
Conditions Employee’s must satisfy before bringing a claim in Personal Injuries for Work Related Stress
Certain conditions must be met before work related stress can give rise to a claim in personal injury. Firstly, your injury must be of such a nature that it gives rise to psychological/psychiatric disorder or illness. Stress alone with not be enough because a certain degree of stress in the workplace in commonplace. The second condition is that the injury you suffered must have been caused by the workplace. If the condition or injury you suffered is unrelated to the workplace your employer will not be held fully liable. Thirdly, the injury you suffered must be reasonably foreseeable by the employer.
This third condition is well illustrated in Berber -v- Dunnes Stores Ltd. The male employee in this case won in the High Court and lost in the Supreme Court. He suffered from Crohns disease, which is very hypersensitive to stress. The employee was switched from a buyer position back into the stores and started to run into difficulty with the Manager of the store. There was consultation and meetings with Mrs. Heffernan. It begs the questions – where do you draw the line between employer’s directions and employee’s right to respect? The Supreme Court ruled that the employee did not have a case and that he had acted unreasonably. There is a mutual responsibility by both the employer and employee. The court looked at the conduct of both the employer and employee and found that the employer’s conduct was reasonable and the employee’s conduct was not reasonable, in spite of the crohns disease and the fact that the Supreme Court accepted that the employee had an overlay of illness as a result of what happened. He was not entitled to succeed in compensation.
This Supreme Court decision highlights the defence of an employer acting reasonably in all the circumstances. Remember that it is not all about the behaviour of the employer.