Untrained nurse sues for `appalling' stress

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The Independent Online
A HOSPITAL cook who was re-employed as an untrained nurse looking after mentally ill patients is suing her bosses for damaging her health through stress.

Denise Beechill, 38, claims that after the closure of the staff canteen in Middlewood Hospital in Sheffield where she worked, she was reassigned as a support nurse but given no training.

She says she was physically attacked by patients, some of whom were recovering from drug addiction and behavioural problems. "I had knives and forks thrown at me and, on one occasion, a man attacked me with a stick." The experience caused her to have two nervous breakdowns, after which she was dismissed by the trust.

According to the health workers' union Unison, which is backing her claim, it is only the second time an employer has been sued for failing to protect staff from unacceptable levels of stress.

The case follows the landmark judgment in which John Walker, a social worker, won pounds 175,000 in damages from Northumberland County Council when he suffered two nervous breakdowns after being given a "health-endangering workload" and was dismissed by the council. In that case the High Court ruled that an employer owes a duty to his employees not to cause them psychiatric damage by the volume or character of work they are required to perform.

Miss Beechill says that although she was told she would be expected to do patients' ironing, washing and shopping, on a number of occasions during night shifts she was left alone to look after the patients. "One of them jumped out of a window at four o'clock in the morning and I had to run down the road and bring her back," she added. "Some of these incidents were quite disturbingbut I never had any counselling.

"The responsibility of looking after such ill patients was too much for me after several violent incidents. I had a breakdown and was off work for several months."

Miss Beechill, who had worked in the hospital canteen for 18 years and for two years in the forensic care unit, has been unable to work since and has psychiatric care once a week.

Bronwyn McKenna, head of legal affairs at Unison, said: "This is one of the most appalling cases of stress that Unison has had to deal with."

A spokesman for Community Health Sheffield NHS Trust confirmed that the trust had received notification of the legal action but would make no further comment.