10 April 2015 #Employment
In a personal injury claim, when is an employer liable for psychiatric illness caused by occupational stress? In a judgment this week, a court has upheld the leading authority of Hatton v Sutherland , which confirms that it is a high hurdle for an employee to get over to demonstrate that psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable.
In Easton v B&Q plc, the claimant was a manager of a supermarket. However, he became ill through occupational stress. A major part of Mr Easton's case was the lack of risk assessment by the employer in relation to stress.
Mr Easton was away from work with depression for about five months and received medication and therapy. When he returned it was on a phased basis at a store nearer his home address which was less busy than the store he previously managed. In the end though, this did not work out and he went off sick again due to depression.
According to the judge, an employer has no general obligation to make searching or intrusive enquiries and may take at face value what an employee tells him. In particular, an employee who returns to work after a period of sickness without qualification is usually implying that he believes himself to be fit to return to the work he was doing before.
Mr Easton had a long managerial career in charge of large retail outlets with no psychiatric history. As to the relapse suffered by Mr Easton, B&Q knew he had suffered a psychiatric illness. However, the fact he was still taking medication was not determinative as to how his employment should have been handled. It was found that there are many people holding down demanding jobs who still require medication.
There remained the issue of the lack of a general risk assessment. However, B&Q relied on a policy document about managing stress, which invited individuals to identify and notify the employer of any symptoms concerned. The judge was of the opinion that Mr Easton had made insufficient efforts to do this and therefore concluded that, on the facts of the particular case, a wider risk assessment would have had no effect on the outcome.