Work-related stress - In Deadman v Bristol City Council it provided guidance on claims where work-related stress is caused by the operation of employment procedures such as disciplinary procedures

01.01.07

Stress caused by operation of a harassment / disciplinary policy

Introduction

Employers are under a duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace. A breach of this duty can give rise to a personal injury claim where it was reasonably foreseeable that an injury would result from the breach. The courts have decided a number of stress-related claims arising from excessive workload or working hours, lack of training or from a specific event. For the first time the Court of Appeal considered liability for stress caused by the operation of employment procedures.

Facts

Mr Deadman had been employed by Bristol City Council for over 30 years when, in February 1998, a female employee made allegations of sexual harassment against him. In terms of the Council's Policy for Stopping Harassment in the Workplace (the "Policy") complaints of harassment were required to be dealt with "sensitively" and an investigation panel had to consist of at least three members.

In breach of the Policy a panel of only two was convened and found against Mr Deadman. Mr Deadman complained under the Council's Grievance Procedure that the appointment of the two-member investigation panel breached the terms of the Policy. The findings of the investigation panel were overturned solely due to the composition of the panel, rather than the merits of the complaint. A letter dated 6 May was left for Mr Deadman on his desk indicating that the complaint against him would be further investigated by a new panel under the Policy. Mr Deadman found the handling of the investigation very stressful, particularly the manner in which he was informed of the fresh investigation.

In March 1998 Mr Deadman had been diagnosed as suffering from stress at work and depression. In May he ceased working permanently. Subsequently he brought a claim for damages for personal injury alleging that the Council had breached his employment contract and/or had breached its duty of care to him which had caused his illness.

Decision

The Court of Appeal found that it was not reasonably foreseeable that Mr Deadman would suffer from an illness from the operation of the Policy. Therefore, his personal injury claim failed.

The Court found that the Council had been in breach of contract, by convening a panel of two rather than three, but that this could not have been expected to have caused psychiatric harm. In relation to the duty of care, the Court considered that Mr Deadman had worked for 30 years with an excellent attendance record, appeared to be in good health and that there was nothing in his demeanour or behaviour before or during the procedure to put the Council on notice that the investigation might be damaging to his health. Therefore, Mr Deadman's illness was not reasonably foreseeable.

Be aware

If an employer fails to follow a procedure this may result in a claim where the breach has resulted in harm to the employee. The claim will, however only succeed if the harm caused was reasonably foreseeable (for example due the employee's health record). Employers should always be alert to signs of stress or vulnerability in the workplace, whether as a result of workload, a specific event or the operation of employment procedures.

Deadman v Bristol City Council 2007 EWCA Civ 822