Occupational Stress and Actionable Workplace Stress-the Crucial Difference

In the course of my work, on a daily or weekly basis, I meet employees who tell me they are ‘stressed’ or have been signed off work by their doctor due to workplace stress. When I discuss the matter more fully I discover a wide range of reasons as to why the employee feels stress.

She may have made a complaint about a colleague and there is an investigation under way; he may be subjected to a personal improvement plan as a consequence of perceived inadequate performance; she may be subjected to a disciplinary process arising from an allegation of misconduct; he may be feeling the pinch financially and the promised bonus or pay rise has failed to materialise; she may be in danger of failing her probation.

All of these things cause stress.

But are they actionable? Can a legal action be successfully mounted and the employer held in breach of contract or found to be negligent?

Occupational stress v actionable workplace stress

There is an important difference between occupational stress and actionable workplace stress.

The Courts have long held that occupational stress is normal and inevitable.

Work is not play or recreation or entertainment, after all, and it is natural and inevitable that a certain amount of stress will attach to the job. You may work in a shop, you may be a nurse, Garda, pilot, cleaner, solicitor, accountant, work in a factory or warehouse-regardless, your job will always have a certain amount of stress attached.

What is actionable workplace stress? The courts have addressed this question in a number of seminal cases including Berber -v- Dunnes Stores Limited [2009] IESC 10, a Supreme Court decision. In this case the Supreme Court accepted and approved the principles set down in an England and Wales Court of Appeal (Civil Division) Decision of Hatton v Sunderland [2002] 2 All ER 1.

These legal principles are:

1. The ordinary principles of employer’s liability apply.

2. The threshold question is whether the kind of harm to the particular employee was reasonably foreseeable: this has two components (a) an injury to health (as distinct from occupational stress) which (b) is attributable to stress at work (as distinct from other factors).

3. Foreseeability depends upon what the employer knows (or ought reasonably to know) about the individual employee. Because of the nature of mental disorder it is harder to foresee than physical injury, but may be easier to foresee in a known individual than in the population at large. An employer is usually entitled to assume that the employee can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless he knows of some particular problem or vulnerability.

4. The employer is generally entitled to take what he is told by his employee (including what he is told by the employee’s medical adviser) at face value unless there is good reason to think to the contrary.

5. The indications of impending harm to health arising from stress at work must be plain enough for any reasonable employer to realise that he should do something about it.

6. The employer is only in breach of duty if he has failed to take the steps which are reasonable in the circumstances, bearing in mind the magnitude of the risk of harm occurring, the gravity of the harm which may occur, the cost and practicability of preventing it, and the justifications for running the risk.

7. An employer can only reasonably be expected to take steps which are likely to do some good: the court is likely to need expert evidence on this.

8. If the only reasonable and effective steps would have been to dismiss or demote the employee the employer will not be in breach of duty in allowing a willing employee to continue in the job.

9. In all cases it is necessary to identify the steps which the employer both could and should have taken before finding him in breach of his duty of care.

10. The claimant must show that the breach of duty caused or materially contributed to the harm suffered. It is not enough to show that occupational stress has caused the harm.”

If you read through these principles you will see, in essence, that the employee must prove at least 4 things:

  1. There was a duty of care to the employee
  2. The harm was reasonably foreseeable
  3. The harm caused an injury to the employee’s health
  4. The harm was a consequence of stress at work

The easy part of this test is proving the employer had a duty of care to the employee for this is self evident.

Conclusion

There is a world of difference between ordinary occupational stress and actionable workplace stress. Occupational stress is a simple fact of working life and will not give rise to a successful legal action; actionable workplace stress is actionable but you must prove you have suffered a recognised mental injury and the employer was legally negligent.

Workplace Bullying and Non Physical Personal Injuries Claims-What You Need to Prove

workplace-bullying

Are you being bullied at work? Perhaps you have a family member, friend or colleague who has complained of being bullied?

Many people, unfortunately, are bullied at work.

Thankfully, you don’t have to suffer in silence. There are solutions.

In 2014, for example, there was an important High Court case-Una Ruffley and the Board of Management of St. Anne’s School-which saw Ruffley, a special needs assistant in a primary school in Kildare being awarded €255,000 .

Note: this High Court decision was overturned on appeal. Read about that decision here.

The case is a useful one to take a look at because it restates certain principles and proofs required to win a case for a personal injury arising from alleged bullying in the workplace.

Quite frankly it is not simply enough to show that you have been bullied. You must also prove you suffered a personal injury as a result.

Background to Ruffley -v- Board of Management St. Anne’s School

The background to the case was after an incident involving the locking of the door of the school’s “sensory room”, the school Principal, Pauline Dempsey, brought the SNA to a meeting and warned her of disciplinary action.

However she later wrote to the SNA advising her that no action would be taken. However, there was to be a three month review of the SNA’s performance.

The review of the SNAs work involved the filling in of a form which led to a difficulty with the Principal accusing the SNA of a “falsification” of the review form.

The Principal then brought the original incident involving the locked door and the performance of the SNA to the Board of Management. The Board recommended that the SNA receive a formal warning and that her next salary increment be deferred.

The Judge in the High Court doubted that the Principal had outlined the full facts surrounding the difficulty to the Board.

The Principal then gave the SNA a letter stating that an investigation had been carried out and if there was a further breach of school policy there could be further action including dismissal.

The High Court held that there was no such investigation and that the SNA had been subjected to a disciplinary sanction that was severe and unmerited.

Workplace bullying defined

Firstly Judge O’Neill referred to the definition of workplace bullying as defined in para 5 of the Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace) (Declaration) Order 2002 (S.I. No. 17/2002) as follows:

“Workplace Bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, is not considered to be bullying.

The Judge also referred to the Supreme Court decision:

“In Quigley v. Complex Tooling & Moulding Ltd. [2009] 1 I.R. at 349, it was held by the Supreme Court that for conduct to amount to bullying it had to be repeated, inappropriate and undermining of the dignity of the employee at work. Furthermore, in his judgment, Fennelly J. said:

“The plaintiff cannot succeed in his claim unless he also proves that he suffered damage amounting to personal injury as a result of his employer’s breach of duty. Where the personal injury is not of a direct physical kind, it must amount to an identifiable psychiatric injury.””

Judge O’Neill said in his judgment:

“It useful to reflect on what had happened to the plaintiff up to this point in time. The plaintiff was subjected to a disciplinary sanction of a severe kind which was unmerited

The manner in which the disciplinary process with regard to the locking of the Sensory Room door was handled by Ms. Dempsey was grossly unfair to the plaintiff and utterly denied her the benefit of her constitutional right to natural justice and fair procedures.

The conjuring up by Ms. Dempsey of the additional offence of failing to improve during the review process and of the “falsification” of the review forms was, as discussed earlier, at best, irrational, in the sense of there being a complete lack of any real basis for such conclusions. It is hard to understand how an educated, sophisticated person, such as Ms. Dempsey, could arrive at such conclusions without an element of bad faith.”

“I am quite satisfied that the treatment of the plaintiff throughout this process by Ms. Dempsey was entirely “inappropriate” within the meaning of the definition of bullying in the workplace.”

Repeated inappropriate behaviour over a period of time

“Thus, in my opinion, the plaintiff has demonstrated to my satisfaction that the inappropriate behaviour of the defendants was not merely an isolated incident but was persistent over a period of in excess of one year. There can be no doubt but that this persistent, inappropriate behaviour of the defendants wholly undermined the plaintiff’s dignity at work.”

An identifiable psychiatric injury

The need to prove that you have suffered an identifiable psychiatric injury is a critical proof to win your case for non physical personal injuries.

“The next question to be considered is whether or not the plaintiff has, as a result of the conduct of the defendants, suffered an identifiable psychiatric injury as indicated in the passage from the judgment of Fennelly J. in the Quigley Complex Tooling & Moulding Ltd. case quoted above.”

“The plaintiff has given evidence to me, which I accept, that from October/November 2009, she began to experience high levels of stress caused by what she perceived as the unfair treatment of her by the defendants, and in particular, Ms. Dempsey. As time went on, and not only was the problem not being resolved but it was getting worse, as she saw it, I have no doubt that these symptoms of stress became much worse, and I accept that from around March 2010, she was suffering constantly from headaches, insomnia, diarrhoea and high levels of anxiety. All of this persisted through the summer months of 2010, and she eventually attended her General Practitioner, on 19th August 2010, complaining of frontal facial temple headaches all summer, that she could not think straight, all related to a bullying issue at school. Her General Practitioner diagnosed muscle contraction headache and prescribed medication for her. She attended her General Practitioner again on 28th September 2010, with similar complaints, with the addition of some neck pain. The General Practitioner put all this down to stress related to bullying.”

“I have no doubt that the imminent return to school after the summer holidays had a heightening effect on her stress and anxiety at that time. On her return to school, a further episode with the Principal, Ms. Dempsey, occurred on 27th September 2009.”

“This incident, in the ordinary course, would not have been of any great consequence, but for the plaintiff, it was the last straw. She felt she could bear it no more and found the stress of continuing in the school intolerable. I have no doubt that at that stage, she had a heightened sense of apprehension in all her dealings with Ms. Dempsey, having regard to all that had happened in the previous year. As a direct consequence of this incident, the plaintiff felt she could no longer continue in the school and she went out on certified sick leave due to work-related stress.”

“Prior to 2009, the plaintiff had two previous episodes of Depression, one of which was a postpartum Depression and the other a reaction to bereavements. She required anti-depressive medication for these but she recovered fully on both occasions. However, and the evidence of Dr. Byrne, a psychiatrist called for the plaintiff, satisfies me in this respect, having suffered previous episodes of Depression, she was predisposed to further depressive illness. I am satisfied on the evidence of Dr. Michael McDonnell, her GP, and Dr. Byrne that the plaintiff suffered an Anxiety and Depressive Disorder resulting from her reaction to what had happened to her in St. Anne’s School from September 2009 through to September 2010. This resulted in a high state of anxiety, low mood, loss of confidence and self-esteem and an inability to cope with everyday life. All of this rendered her incapable of returning to work in the defendants’ school, and all of that, allied to her fear that she would not have a good reference, inhibited her from seeking employment elsewhere. As a result, she has not worked since 27th September 2010.

She has been on anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication since late 2010, and she attended the Kildare Mental Health Services in Newbridge on a regular basis where she was prescribed anti-Depression medication. Her situation has not improved over the intervening period. An examination of her by Dr. McDonnell in February 2014, included the completion of two questionnaires, namely, the General Anxiety Disorder Assessment and the Patient Health Questionnaire, the results of which indicated she was suffering from a severe anxiety state and severe Depression. I think it probable that the impending litigation was, at that stage, worsening her symptoms, but that notwithstanding, there can be no doubt that she has, since late 2010, suffered from a significant anxiety and depressive disorder and that continues to afflict her.

Dr. Byrne’s evidence was to the effect that she has to continue with her medication and other forms of support and therapy which should enable her to recover her whole sense of personal safety and her sense of self-worth, and to enable her to have a feeling of control of her life. With all of that, she could look forward to a gradual reintroduction to a work situation. It would seem to me to be probable that when this litigation is concluded, there is likely to be a significant improvement in her anxiety and depressive state. I would think it probable, having regard to Dr. Byrne’s evidence, that she will have the capacity, in due course, to return to fulltime, gainful employment.”

In conclusion, the Judge stated that:

“I am satisfied that the plaintiff has suffered a definite and identifiable psychiatric injury from which she still continues to suffer significantly and will continue to do so for some time into the future. Therefore, she must be compensated for her pain and suffering in that regard to date and into the future. In my opinion, the appropriate sum to compensate the plaintiff for her psychiatric injury to date is the sum of €75,000. Insofar as the future is concerned, as already mentioned, the probability is that she will improve and go on to recover over time, particularly when this litigation is finalised. With that in mind, in my opinion, the appropriate sum to compensate her for her psychiatric injury for the future is the sum of €40,000, making a total for general damages of €115,000.

The plaintiff’s loss of earnings up to 6th March 2014 was agreed in the sum of €93,276.39. There was some suggestion that there may have been some deductible benefits which would reduce that figure, but the court was not told if that was so or what the amount thereof should be. That being so, I must proceed on the basis that there are no deductible social welfare benefits.

In my view, the plaintiff is entitled to recover the foregoing sum, and as it is clear she will probably not be able to return to gainful employment for some time yet, is entitled to recover damages in respect of future loss of earnings. I think it probable that with appropriate treatment, she will be fit for such employment in the relatively near future, and accordingly, I would award her half the foregoing sum again in respect of future loss of earnings, namely, €47,000, making a total of €140,276 in respect of loss of earnings past and future.

Accordingly, there will be judgment for the plaintiff in the sum of €255,276.”


You can read the full decision of this case here.

Note: this decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Bullying and Workplace Stress as a Personal Injury-a Notable High Court Decision in 2014

workplace-stress

I regularly meet employees who complain of being stressed. And who want to make a claim against their employer as a result.

But it’s not quite that straightforward.

Because of the difference between occupational stress and workplace stress.

Workplace stress is actionable. Occupational stress isn’t.

A March, 2014 judgment in the High Court in the case Glynn v Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform (2014 IEHC 135) is well worth looking at because it deals with workplace stress, bullying, and personal injury claims in the workplace.

The claimant was a civil servant and worked in Gort Garda station in Co. Galway. Her claim was that she suffered stress as a result of pressure placed on her in 2005 to complete monthly accounts for the Garda station.

Prior to this incident there were other incidents-not getting on with a Garda who she felt was constantly checking on her-going back to 1996 and she had taken sick leave in November of that year.

She returned on a 3 day week in 1997.In 2004 she was promoted to the position of Finance Officer.

In May, 2005 she worked on the accounts for 4 days during which she suffered considerable stress.

She then raised with Garda Headquarters her concerns about a cheque for expenses in favour of the Superintendent. She claimed the Superintendent told her he would take her job from her if she didn’t do what he told her.

She then went on sick leave for 6 months and returned when the Superintendent had retired from the station.

In cross-examination the claimant admitted that she had suffered from depression prior to the incidents complained of. She also had failed to contact the Employment Assistance Services of the Department of Justice in 1996 re her bullying allegation.

The defence case was that there was no bullying and the Superintendent had no issues with her, nor was there a problem with the expenses cheque.

The Legal Issues and Principles

The High Court, Justice Kearns, observed:

“…..bullying, workplace stress and occupational stress are all things which, conceptually at least, are quite different from each other, though on occasion they can overlap and coincide. Occupational stress is not actionable given that occupational stress is something which every employed person may experience at some stage of his or her working life and can occur for reasons quite distinct from and unrelated to bullying.…”

The Court noted that workplace stress can be actionable if certain criteria are met. However it is different from bullying insofar as it lacks the degree of deliberateness associated with bullying.

“Workplace stress can also be the result of negligence where excessive demands are made of an employee or where complaints about shortcomings in the workplace go unheeded. It lacks however that degree of deliberateness which is the hallmark of bullying”.

The Court said the following question should be asked in relation to the claim of bullying:

“whether the behaviour complained of, by reference to an objective test, imports that degree of calibrated inappropriateness and repetition which differentiates bullying from workplace stress or occupational stress“

It also referred to the legal definition of bullying set out in Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice Detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace) (Declaration) Order 2002 (S.I. No. 17 of 2002) viz
“repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, it is not considered to be bullying.”

The Court noted that this definition required an objective test to decide whether bullying had occurred.

The Court referred to Quigley v Complex Tooling and Moulding Ltd [2009] 1 I.R. 349 and the acceptance by the Supreme Court in that case of the definition of bullying or harassment at work as set out in S.I. No. 17 of 2002 above.

Justice Kearns observed that the relevant legal principles for workplace stress were laid down in Berber v Dunnes Stores [2009] E.L.R. 61 (which accepted the practical propostions set out in the 2002 case Hatton V Sutherland [2002] 2 All E.R.1).

These legal principles are:
1. The ordinary principles of employer’s liability apply.

2. The threshold question is whether the kind of harm to the particular employee was reasonably foreseeable: this has two components (a) an injury to health (as distinct from occupational stress) which (b) is attributable to stress at work (as distinct from other factors).

3. Foreseeability depends upon what the employer knows (or ought reasonably to know) about the individual employee. Because of the nature of mental disorder it is harder to foresee than physical injury, but may be easier to foresee in a known individual than in the population at large. An employer is usually entitled to assume that the employee can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless he knows of some particular problem or vulnerability.

4. The employer is generally entitled to take what he is told by his employee (including what he is told by the employee’s medical adviser) at face value unless there is good reason to think to the contrary.

5. The indications of impending harm to health arising from stress at work must be plain enough for any reasonable employer to realise that he should do something about it.

6. The employer is only in breach of duty if he has failed to take the steps which are reasonable in the circumstances, bearing in mind the magnitude of the risk of harm occurring, the gravity of the harm which may occur, the cost and practicability of preventing it, and the justifications for running the risk.

7. An employer can only reasonably be expected to take steps which are likely to do some good: the court is likely to need expert evidence on this.

8. If the only reasonable and effective steps would have been to dismiss or demote the employee the employer will not be in breach of duty in allowing a willing employee to continue in the job.

9. In all cases it is necessary to identify the steps which the employer both could and should have taken before finding him in breach of his duty of care.

10. The claimant must show that the breach of duty caused or materially contributed to the harm suffered. It is not enough to show that occupational stress has caused the harm.”

The Decision

The High Court in this case held that 2 things exercised the plaintiff:

1. a sense of injustice that she, as a civilian employee, was not being paid the same rate as a Garda colleague and

2. the working conditions she had to work in in 1996 (in a portacabin/temporary accommodation).

The Court also observed that there was no acceptable explanation by the plaintiff as to why she did not disclose a prior history of depression and accepted that the Superintendent’s evidence was reliable and credible.

Justice Kearns stated that he could not see that anything in the behaviour of the Garda colleague or Superintendent constituted bullying or harassment.

Furthermore

“the events upon which the plaintiff relies to mount her claim turn on the events of a few short days in May, 2005 a time span more identifiable with a once-off or single incident rather than the kind of ‘repetitive’ and ‘inappropriate’ conduct which constitutes the wrong of workplace bullying or harassment“.

The court concluded that the plaintiff had not made a case for bullying or workplace stress causing or contributing to foreseeable injury or damage. She had no complaints of workplace stress for the eight years between 1997 and 2005.

Justice Kearns went further and said

“Even if mistaken on these issues I would also be of the view that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that her stress was attributable to the matters she complained of in this case. She had a prior history of stress and depression which was not disclosed until it was uncovered through the discovery process. I believe any subsequent stresses suffered by the plaintiff were attributable both to life events (including the tragic death of her nephew and the death of her father) and, in 2005, to occupational stress only”.

You can read the full High Court decision here.