Law: After the burn-out, the lawsuit

The case of John Walker, a social worker who sued his employer for two work-related breakdowns, may lead to an increase in personal injury court cases. By Ian Hunter

Imagine you are a 35-year-old banker. You have worked for the bank since leaving university. The money has been good but the work has been endless. You have been subject to a hectic timetable and dogged by lack of support. Suddenly you collapse with exhaustion. The medical reports confirm that a stress-related illness has developed; the ascent to the top is over.

In the past the only option for such a victim was to look for a much lower-paid job. Burn-outs remain a fact of the Nineties, but in the future these burn-outs are more likely to be accompanied by stress-related personal injury claims. The debate continues as to how successful such claims will prove to be.

It has been firmly established that employers are liable to pay compensation when an unsatisfactory working environment has made an employee ill.

The case of the social worker, John Walker, who suffered two work-related breakdowns, established that the employer's duty to provide a safe place of work extended not only to physical injury but to mental ill effects as well.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 provides that an employer must, amongst other things, provide a working environment that is as far as reasonably practicable safe and without risks to health. This obligation has recently been buttressed by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992. These regulations place a duty on employers to identify and prevent health and safety problems.

In order to succeed with a claim for stress-related injury, the employee must leap a number of hurdles. First, the employee must establish that the employer had a duty of care that was broken; second, that the injury caused was a result of the employer's breach and third that, in the circumstances, the injury suffered was reasonably foreseeable.

Future battles are likely to revolve around two points. First, was the risk reasonably foreseeable? and second, was the injury caused the result of the employer's action?

Much has been made of the fact that Mr Walker suffered not one but two breakdowns. It was established after the first breakdown that it was reasonably foreseeable that overwork would expose Mr Walker to the risk of injury.

Since that case the Health and Safety Executive has published guidelines to deal with stress at work. In addition, speculation has increased that the European Union's Working Time directive will become enshrined in British law, in spite of the present government's resistance. The directive seeks to regulate the number of hours worked by employees and the periods of rest to which they should be entitled.

These developments, together with increasing awareness of and research into stress-related injuries, are likely to make it harder in future for employers to argue that they could not reasonably be expected to foresee a health risk for employees who are subject to long hours and tight deadlines.

Proving that any mental illness suffered by an employee is caused by work-related stress will remain difficult. Stress-related illness is often the result of a combination of problems, some of which may not be work-related, such as relationship difficulties or a bereavement.

In Mr Walker's case, the cause of his illness was relatively easily established. Some employees may be unusually susceptible to stress-related illnesses because of unidentified personality traits. In such cases the employer will have strong grounds for arguing that any injury caused by working conditions was not reasonably foreseeable.

The likelihood is that stress-related claims will increase. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Umist, supports this view. He comments: "The Walker case has provided an added impetus. The message of the case for employers was they have a duty of care as to how they manage people in the same way as they have a duty as to how they manage machinery. This is quite profound." Professor Cooper points out that stress- related claims predated Walker. He observes: "These include unfair dismissal claims for bullying, together with claims for sexual and racial harassment."

However, Andrew Buchan, a barrister who has been closely involved in stress-related cases, does not predict a flood of successful claims.

He comments: "The Walker case was a landmark decision. As the Law Commission has said, it constitutes a logical and just application of the law on safety at work to psychiatric illness. There will be other successful cases due to man's inhumanity to man, but these will be exceptional. The flood gates will be kept well and truly shut by individual problems of proof."

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: If you are a committed Te...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style