Court blames employer for social worker's breakdown

A council was yesterday held liable for a social worker's nervous breakdown, in a High Court decision that could open the way for a wave of legal action against employers. The judgment recognised for the first time an employer's duty to protect employees from work-related stress.

Lawyers for John Walker, who was dismissed by Northumberland County Council in 1987 on the ground of ``permanent ill-health'', will now press for compensation in excess of pounds 200,000. Mr Walker, a senior social worker, maintained that two breakdowns he suffered were caused by a huge increase in child-abuse cases.

While the council said it will appeal, there is little doubt the case will encourage other workers to take legal action.

Roger Poole, assistant general secretary of Unison, the public services union which backed Mr Walker's case, warned that employers who placed an ``unreasonable burden'' on their staff could now expect to be taken to court.

Mr Walker, 57, now a self-employed painter and decorator, suffered mental exhaustion, acute anxiety, sleeplessness and bouts of weeping, according to the judgment.

He reported feeling ``shell-shocked'' by the pressure he was put under in the mid-Eighties when child-abuse cases hit the headlines and local authorities sought to ``protect their backs''.

A middle manager with 20 years' service, responsible for social workers in a problem area north of Newcastle, Mr Walker suffered two breakdowns - in November 1986 and in September 1987.

The court ruled that the council was liable for the second breakdown, having failed adequately to relieve Mr Walker's workload despite constant requests. One of Mr Walker's superiors told the hearing in Newcastle that some of his complaints seemed to be ``exaggerated'' and aimed at getting extra leave.

Mr Justice Colman said the second period of illness left Mr Walker ``severely mentally wounded''. His confidence in himself had been ``permanently destroyed''.

The judge decided that while the authority chose to continue to employ him, it provided no effective help. ``In so doing it was in my judgement acting unreasonably and therefore in breach of its duty of care''.

The judgment was reached under common law.

Stress at work, page 4