In a recent judgment of the Court of Appeal of Southern Norrland (the "Court"), the Court ruled on allegations that the detrimental psychosocial work environment at a workplace had led to the suicide of an employee, and that two senior managers, through criminal negligence, were responsible for the death of the employee.
The appeal stems from the groundbreaking judgment of the Swedish District Court of Östersund, in which the district court held the two senior managers responsible for causing, by negligence and gross negligence, the employee's (a social worker) illness and suicide. The alleged negligence consisted in failing to take active measures that could have prevented the illness and suicide. The gross negligence consisted in initiating dismissal proceedings while being aware of the suicidal tendencies of the employee and without considering whether there were in fact any grounds for dismissal.
The Court held that there were deficiencies in the handling of the situation. Both senior managers had been negligent in, inter alia, failing to consider whether it was possible to adapt the working conditions for the social worker, failing to consider whether the employee could be transferred to a different position, failing to consider how to rehabilitate the employee, and failing to ensure that a full investigation was conducted into the bullying claims made by the social worker. One of the senior managers was found negligent in failing to conduct a full assessment as to whether there were, in reality, grounds for summary dismissal. The Court noted that the lack of a sufficient investigation into the bullying claims was especially negligent. However, the Court also stated that the lack of clear instructions as to how such an investigation should be carried out needed to be taken into account in the assessment of the senior managers' negligence. The Court also took into account the deceased's attitude towards the course of action the senior managers had proposed and attempted to implement, and the problems involved in taking satisfactory measures in practice to resolve the situation. Ultimately, the Court held that neither of the senior managers had been negligent to the extent that their conduct constituted criminal negligence pursuant to applicable work environment regulations. The case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
Clearly, this case is a tragedy for all parties involved. Even though the senior managers were acquitted, the allegations that they caused an employee's death will weigh heavily on the senior managers as well as other co-workers. In order to ensure the well-being of employees and senior managers, thereby ensuring the proper functioning of the organization, companies should take a proactive approach to work environment issues, including psychosocial aspects. As the case illustrates, employers are increasingly held accountable also for the psychosocial aspects of the work environment, such as work-related stress and mental illness. A company that takes a proactive approach and applies a systematic process regarding health and safety management will help ensure the well-being of employees and senior managers while minimizing legal risks.
Comments on the case from a Finnish perspective:
While Finland has not seen cases as tragic as Krokom, bullying and psychosocial problems in workplaces has been a hot topic for some time. If they have not already done so, employers are well advised to adopt policies and procedures to address these issues in an appropriate manner.