Employment Update: Work related stress

06 March 2007

Where an employer should reasonably have foreseen that pressure of work would cause an employee to have a breakdown, the employer will be liable to compensate the employee for any injury or financial loss suffered as a result.

On 7 February 2007, in the case of Daw v Intel Ltd, the Court of Appeal rejected an appeal by the employer and upheld a High Court decision awarding the employee over £130,000 in damages.

The employer had successfully argued that the fact that this employee had twice in the past suffered from post-natal depression did not make her more vulnerable and so there was no reason why the employer should have taken that into account when dealing with her. However, after being found in tears at her desk, the employee had detailed her current complaints of overwork in writing to the employer who had failed to act on them. The Court of Appeal agreed with the High Court that this made the employer legally responsible for her subsequent breakdown.

Points to note –

  • In the leading case of Hatton v Sutherland it was suggested that, if an employer provided a free counselling service, this might be enough to allow it to escape liability for employee breakdown. However, in Intel v Daw, even though the employer had such a counselling service which the employee had used in the past but did not choose to use on this occasion, the employer was still found liable. Counselling would not have reduced her workload, which was the cause of the problem.

  • The fact that an employee tries to cope with stress alone, rather than going off sick, does not eliminate the employer’s duty of care. In this case Ms Daw struggled on for three months after complaining in tears of her workload before she broke down completely but this provided no excuse for the employer’s failure to address the problem. Employers should ensure that they have systems for monitoring and following up on employee complaints of stress at work.