With the downturn in the economy there has been a steady increase in the number of personal injury claims for bullying and harassment in the workplace. Stress is characterised by a feeling of not coping. Workplace stress can be a good motivator, but too much stress or unrealistic expectations can affect a workers health and manifest in physical complaints such as jaw grinding and disturbed sleep leading to absenteeism, poor performance and psychiatric injury.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has identified common causes of occupational stress:
- 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
- Uncooperative colleagues
Employer’s Duty of Care towards Employees
Employers’ duty extends to protection against physical injury and psychological/psychiatric injury. Employers have a duty to safeguard against stress in employees’ working environment which could be considered unreasonable, not to provide a workplace that is totally stress free.
Every employee has a contract and there is an implied term in every contract that they are treated with a certain amount of respect and that there is mutual trust between the Employer and Employee. If there is a breach of that duty there is a responsibility on the Employer. Employers also owe a general duty under Tort law to take care of employee welfare.
The courts take a common sense approach to assessing whether any stress or risks are reasonable and will take into consideration that depending on the job a certain amount of stress could be expected.
Effects of Workplace Stress for Employers
- An employee’s inability to relax or take a break can lead to burnout
- Low morale
- Increased absenteeism
- Higher accident rates
- Risk of legal action taken by employee(s) with occupational stress
Minimising the Risk of Occupational Stress
Once an employee becomes aware of the work related stress s/he should inform the employer immediately so that the employer can take steps to minimise the stress.
Once the Employer is aware that the working conditions are unreasonably stressful s/he:
- can do something to change this if it is without undue cost.
- should take steps to reduce workload and/or improve working conditions. Regular risk assessments are also recommended.
- should ensure regular training takes place as the more confident and comfortable employees are in their work the less likely stress is to surface.
- have a safety policy including an occupational stress and stress management policy. A company’s Safety Statement should outline the duty of care on employees to safeguard their own health and safety at work.
Finally, a reasonable and objective test is applied:
- An employer is entitled to accept what is on the face of it e.g. if an employee is out on a sick cert due to back problems, the employee cannot thereafter claim that it was down to stress.
- If an employee says s/he is ready to return to work the employer is entitled to accept that at face value.
Conditions to Satisfy in Bringing a Claim
Certain conditions must be met before work related stress can give rise to a claim in personal injury including:
- Recognisable psychiatric illness
- The employee has to prove that the illness was reasonably foreseeable such as informing the employer that they are stressed. Cases have been lost where the employer was given no warning sign that the employee could not cope with the usual stress of the job.
- The injury suffered must have been caused by the workplace. If it is unrelated to the workplace the employer will not be held fully liable.
- The injury suffered must be reasonably foreseeable by the employer. It is a defence if an employer acts reasonably in all the circumstances.
Compensation for Occupational Stress Claims
Occupational stress claims are taken as a personal injury, rather than employment, claims so the awards are not limited to the compensation levels which exist under employment law. They are looked on the same as physical injury accidents at work.