Stressed-out employees are pursuing compensation claims in record numbers, according to figures released yesterday.

Stressed-out employees are pursuing compensation claims in record numbers, according to figures released yesterday.

Unions have seen an unprecedented 70 per cent increase in their case load, with 783 claims in 1998 compared with 459 the previous year.

Last year unions took 15 new cases a week, an annual survey by the TUC found. Work-related stress costs the British economy an estimated £6.4bn in days lost, and the Health and Safety Executive estimates that 60 per cent of work absence is caused by stress.

While the number of complaints against employers is rising rapidly, few of them get to court. Most are settled voluntarily and companies often insist on confidentiality clauses, according to Craig Jones of Thompson solicitors. He said: "Many employers are prepared to settle, but want to remain anonymous because they are embarrassed about the amount of work their employees have been subjected to."

In one recent case, in which the insurance company Frizzells was named, a former employee received £17,500 in an out-of-court settlement, plus costs, after she was made seriously ill by overwork. Julie Wren was given what she regarded as the work of three people in January 1995 and despite requests for assistance, none came. Eventually she went off sick because of stress and exhaustion. Even then management made no effort to improve her situation, according to the banking and insurance union Unifi.

Katy Clark, a senior legal officer at Unison, Britain's biggest union, said the increasing number of cases was caused not only by growing pressure on employees, but by the publicity given to big compensation settlements.

In a landmark case in 1995, John Walker, a social work manager with Northumberland County Council, was awarded £175,000 after suffering two nervous breakdowns, and this year Beverley Lancaster, an employee at Birmingham City Council, received £67,000.

Ms Clark said that some employees had used the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to win compensation. But that was only possible where a person had been off work for some time and an employer had refused to alter working conditions to allow them to return.

Only about a dozen cases have gone to court, however, and it has proved difficult to win compensation, said Mr Jones. Not only do complainants have to both prove that any illness was caused by work, but that management should have foreseen it and took no action to prevent it.