High Court awards put spotlight on stress
A lot has changed since Professor Michiel Kompier found that Ireland was relatively untouched by stress in 1996. These days we are working harder and faster and many of us are feeling the pressure.
THERE HAVE been a fair number of stress-related court cases in Britain since the groundbreaking ‘Walker’ judgement in the mid-1990s, but little significant activity in the Irish Courts. That is until now.
The Walker case concluded with a £175,000 sterling award to a social worker for stress-related illness. Mr Walker suffered two nervous breakdowns and the UK court found his employer – Northumberland county council - liable because it was aware of the risk after his first breakdown but took no steps to address it.
Until last year, Irish legal activity on workplace stress cases was relatively insignificant. Few cases formally entered the legal arena, although it is believed that many as 25 stress-related claims were settled out of court. One case, Quinn -v- Servier Laboratories, is thought to have been settled for a six-figure sum.
In 1999, the Employment Appeals Tribunal made an award of over £26,000 to a supervisor in a sausage factory after it found she had been unfairly dismissed during a period when she was on sick leave as a result of high stress levels.
Concern about the legal implications of stress was growing among employers.
Then, at the end of 2000, the High Court made what are thought to be the first court awards in bullying and stress related cases. These will really concentrate minds.
In the first a welder was awarded £51,000, of which £50,000 was attributed to stress and health problems he suffered as a result of serious intimidation. The additional £1,000 was for loss of earnings. The key aspect in this award was the link between bullying and stress.
The second case concerned a Garda, who was awarded over £52,000, £40,000 of which was compensation for stress and anxiety.
Both cases arose as a result of complex employment relationships and both took a long time to come to court. The common element in the awards is that the judge compensated the plaintiffs for the stress they suffered and, in doing so, put a value on stress claims. But, of course, there is no ‘going rate’ for stress claims and each legal case would be judged – and compensated or otherwise – on its own merits
Most of us experience stress in our lives and at work. A certain level of stress is acceptable – even positive - but it’s a serious matter when it crosses the line and threatens health problems.
The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) says workplace stress arises “when the demands on a person exceed the capacity to meet them.” And it says most stress and stress-related illness is preventable with good work design, safe work practices, and adequate resources.
Research shows that all workers can suffer from unacceptable stress levels. Although senior managers are under pressure, they also have control over resources and workplace organisation – and the power to deal with problems. It is often those further down the pile who suffer most because they have less control over work demands, work organisation and resources.
Employers are legally obliged to control workplace stress, just as they must control any other workplace health hazard. The 1989 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act obliges them to identify and safeguard against all risks to health and safety. All places of work must have a safety programme written down in a safety statement. The potential hazard of stress must be addressed when compiling a safety statement.
Under the legislation, your employer has a ‘duty of care’ to all employees and must consider whether stress is a risk when they identify health hazards and assess risks. If a risk is identified, your employer is obliged to adopt measures to eliminate or control it.
There is now a massive literature on the causes and effects of stress, including clear advice from the HSA on potential triggers. The Agency says stress can effects us at four levels: Emotional (causing fatigue and anxiety), cognitive (leading to mistakes and accidents), behavioural (possibly manifest in smoking, excessive drinking or over-eating) and physiological, with potentially serious symptoms like raised blood pressure, heart disease, reduced resistance to infection, digestive problems and bad skin.
The HSA says that safeguards and controls must be implemented primarily at organisation level - basically in the specific workplace. This may mean changes in working conditions, social support, career development and training, management support, communication, and control over workloads and work organisation. In some cases, these measures may need to be supported by a programme of individual coping strategies.
Many trade unionists and practitioners hope that stress and bullying will be specifically identified as occupational hazards in amendments due to the health and safety legislation. In any case, the recent hefty High Court awards are likely to drive many employers to seek legal advice.
Thanks to ©IMPACT Trade Union for this article published in 2000