Where an employee suffers a psychiatric illness caused by workplace stress, the employer will be liable if the injury was reasonably foreseeable. The decision in Easton v B&Q Plc shows that proving that an injury is 'reasonably foreseeable' can be a difficult task for an employee.
Mr Easton, a store manager of 10 years' standing, was absent from work for about 5 months with depression caused by work-related stress. A phased return to work was agreed. In the first week of his return, Mr Easton met with one of his managers and was offered a temporary manager's role at a different store. He said he would need to think about it. The following day Mr Easton saw his G.P. who re-certified him as unfit to return to work due to depression. He subsequently brought a claim against his employer for psychiatric injury caused by work-related stress.
In considering Mr Easton’s first period of sickness absence, the High Court found that his long-established managerial career, the fact that he had no history of psychiatric illness and that 'nothing about him gave anyone any clue that he might succumb to a psychiatric illness' meant that it was not reasonable for B&Q to foresee that Mr Easton would suffer the psychiatric injury.
In relation to his relapse, the High Court also held that the injury was not reasonably foreseeable. Just because an employer knows an employee to be vulnerable (as B&Q did), does not mean the employer will inevitably be liable for any subsequent injury – the 'reasonably foreseeable' test still applies.
Here, Mr Easton had said that he wanted to go back to work and felt ready to return. The court found that B&Q was entitled to accept that an employee who has returned to work is fit to do so unless he says otherwise. There is no general obligation on the employer to make 'searching or intrusive enquiries' and the employer is usually entitled to take 'at face value' what the employee tells them. B&Q was, therefore, entitled to act on the basis that Mr Easton would be able to assess whether he wished to take up the temporary manager's post and the fact that the offer deviated from the planned phased return was not sufficient to make the offer a breach of the duty of care.
What does this mean for employers?
This case is a useful reminder that it is difficult for employees to succeed in this type of claim. However, whilst the court's decision in relation to the first period of illness is unsurprising, in relation to the relapse, the court was faced with contrasting evidence – it preferred the evidence of B&Q but had it favoured Mr Easton's evidence, the result might have been different.
It is also comparatively rare for employees to show no signs of stress prior to a period of absence and so employers should continue to be on the look-out for employees who may not be coping – not least because (as with most employee relations issues), it is usually preferable to address issues as they arise to prevent more significant problems further down the line.
Easton v B&Q Plc - HQ13X05520