Liability for harm from workplace stress has provided some live employment issues in almost every common law jurisdiction.
One of the leading international decisions of recent years was that of the English Court of Appeal in Hatton v Sutherland - which was a composite decision, being judgment in each of four separate cases.
In each case, a claimant sought compensation for harm from illness or injury related to workplace stress. Three of the four claimants were unsuccessful in obtaining any compensation. One of the claimants - Alan Barber, a school teacher - appealed the decision in respect of his case.
Barber's case proceeded to the House of Lords - which issued its decision in the last month. In short, Barber has been successful on appeal - and some of the legal issues concerning liability for workplace stress have been the subject of careful consideration.
Barber trained as a teacher in London in the 1960s specialising in mathematics and physical education. After he qualified in 1970 he moved out of London, and between 1971 and 1984 held teaching roles at different schools in Wiltshire. In 1983 Barber was successful in an application for the job of Head of Mathematics at the East Bridgwater Community School - a position which he held until the termination of his employment in 1996.
The East Bridgwater School faced a number of serious problems, none of which were necessarily unique to it. Its budget was under strain - and teachers' salaries were constrained as a result. Teachers were placed under increasing work pressures which resulted in Barber being required to work between 61 and 70 hours per week. Barber's ordinary work was described as "arduous, hectic and … extended well beyond the normal working day".
For the main part of his employment, it appears that Barber coped with the stresses and strains that were an ordinary part of his job. Between 1992 and 1995 he averaged only four sick days per year.
At the end of 1995, however, Barber began to realise that he was not coping well. Over the Christmas break he investigated the possibility of taking an early retirement - but then returned to school and found himself too busy to take the matter any further.
In February 1996 he complained to the Deputy Head of the school that he was overloaded with work. In March, and again in April, he consulted his general practitioner about "work stress" - although he did not share this fact with the school.
In May 1996 Barber's general practitioner stood him down from work for two weeks on the basis that he was "suffering from stress and depression".
When Barber returned to work, he filled in the school's sickness form stating his trouble as "over stressed/depression". This form was counter-signed by one of the Deputy Heads of the school.
Barber then had a meeting with the Headmistress of the school. In the trial Court's view, this meeting served to make the school "positively aware" of the stresses to which Barber was subject, and that he felt that he was not coping. It appears, however, that the Headmistress was generally unsympathetic, and suggested to Barber that all her staff were under stress because of the nature of the workplace.
There was a subsequent meeting with the Deputy Headmistress - but a similar outcome resulted - with no steps being taken to address Barber's condition, or to reduce the apparent source of his suffering.
Things finally reached a head in October 1996 when Barber lost control of himself and left his employment, never to return. Two psychiatrists subsequently diagnosed him as suffering from moderate or severe depression.
Barber made a claim against the school, broadly alleging that it had failed in its obligation to take reasonable steps to safeguard him from harm. He sought compensation for the damage that he had suffered.
At first instance, the trial Court found in favour of Barber, and ordered compensation to be paid to him on behalf of the school. On appeal to the Court of Appeal, the Court reversed the earlier decision - and found in favour of the school.
The Judges of the House of Lords were split in their decision. Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe gave the judgment of the majority. He held that, whilst the case was "fairly close to the borderline", there was insufficient reason for the Court of Appeal to set aside the finding of the trial Court.
His Lordship found that a duty arose in June and July 1996 - which required the school to take some action. He found that, at this time, Barber was already suffering from depression - but neither the Headmistress or Deputy Headmistress proved to be a sympathetic listener. Lord Walker held that sympathetic inquiries should have been made about Barber's condition, and some steps should have been taken to ease his workload.
As a result, the House of Lords found in favour of Barber, and ordered compensation of approximately £72,000 to be paid to him.
This is a significant decision in a difficult area - and one which is likely to be influential upon courts in this country. In effect, it allows liability on a slightly lower threshold than that previously permitted. In essence, this is a case in which an employer failed to take adequate steps in response to disclosure by an employee of a serious condition (potentially leading to harm).
This area is a difficult one - largely because the type of harm concerned is, by its nature, likely to be known to the employee (either exclusively or primarily) - in other words, it is difficult for an employer to "see" harm of this type. The decision establishes, however, that when disclosure is made of actual or potential harm, an employer should be swift to take steps in response - and will suffer the prospect of later liability if it is unsympathetic to an employee's circumstances.