The Guardian Online reports the case of Paris resident M. Frederic Desnard last week. He is claiming over £280,000 in compensation for a nervous breakdown allegedly caused by his managerial job at French perfumiers Interparfum. However, no tale of excessive pressure and punishing working hours, this one. Instead, M.Desnard claims that his job was so boring and devoid of responsibility that he was left with serious depression before finally being made redundant. “I was ashamed of being paid for doing nothing” he said.

Even though apparently his job did not, M.Desnard’s claim does have at least two interesting points :-

  1. The claim includes holiday pay – presumably doing little or nothing all day is so wearing that you need a break from it now and again;
  2. The compensation sought is primarily damages for personal injuries and consequent harm to re-employment prospects, rather than a normal loss of employment claim.

We shall find out soon enough whether Mr Desnard’s unlikely claim will fly in France, but could it work in the UK? The argument is not quite so silly as it sounds:

The Working Time Regulations 1998 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations the following year contain the only English legislation about really boring jobs. Hidden away in Regulation 8 WTR is an obligation on employers to ensure that workers are given adequate rest breaks where their health and safety is put at risk because the work is “monotonous”. The Health and Safety Regulations import into English law the “General Principles of Prevention” set out in a 1989 EC Directive on improving worker health and safety, and include an obligation to “adapt the work to the individual, especially as regards….. the choice of working methods….. with a view to alleviating monotonous work”. You will see there is reference to the individual, an acceptance that there are those whose career aspirations would be only met by a role as a door-stop, as well as those with higher ambitions for themselves.

So there it is – if your job is really crucifyingly tedious (my words, not the legislation’s) then your employer might conceivably have an obligation to do something about it. However, we must be careful here to distinguish between the ordinary daily grind of a dull job and the sort of weapons-grade brain-frying mental inactivity which can do you actual psychiatric harm, the point where “bored out of your mind” moves from adjective to medical diagnosis.

These bits of UK Regulation are categorically not about people who feel capable of more, whose job does not stretch them or who can play an hour’s patience on their PC each day without anyone caring, or indeed noticing. These provisions are essentially about roles which could or should be automated, where the hands may be moving but the brain is idling in neutral or off with the fairies somewhere else. It is for very much this reason that the majority of UK stress claims are among blue-collar assembly-line type staff and not among white-collar executives even though (perhaps because) their role demands far more of them.

This right may exist in theory but in practice it would be extraordinarily difficult to make a personal injuries claim out of it. If you felt your brain and spirit turning to mush through under-use then surely you would resign, or at least complain to your employer so repeatedly (by definition, you have little else to do) that it finally takes your point and makes you redundant. If you complained extensively without response, then you could potentially get to a constructive dismissal claim, but there is no suggestion of that in M. Desnard’s case. Indeed he seems to have received his clearly unwelcome salary with remarkable fortitude for a considerable period before finding the strain of doing next to nothing too great and going off sick, “destroyed” (he says) by the effort. The views of M Desnard’s more engaged colleagues on the gross unbalance of effort and reward he complains of are not recorded. Sadly, however, it is very hard to see an English Court being materially sympathetic to the travails of an employee who had spent material periods of time being paid substantially more than his employer obviously thought he was worth.