Employer not found liable for stress in the workplace

Easton v B&Q Plc [2015] EWHC 880 (QB)

The facts

The Claimant, a B&Q employee, sought damages for psychiatric illness and consequential loss caused by work- related stress.

He had been the manager of one of B&Q’s stores when he started to suffer from depression and was absent from work for five months, before starting a phased return. A few days into the return, he was re-certified as unfit for work due to depression after he felt he came under pressure to accept an offer of a temporary post at another branch.

B&Q accepted that the Claimant had suffered a psychiatric illness and that the illness, at least in substantial measure, was caused by occupational stress. However, it argued that the illness had not been foreseeable at any stage and that it did not breach any duty.

Held

In claims for psychiatric illness or injury arising from the stress of doing the work an employee was required to do, the question was whether the kind of harm had been reasonably foreseeable, which depended upon what the employer knew or ought reasonably to have known about the employee.

In the instant case, the Claimant’s claim in respect of his first breakdown was bound to fail at the first hurdle of foreseeability. He had spent his 10-year managerial career in charge of large retail outlets and had had no history at all of any psychiatric or psychological problems. Nothing about him gave anyone any clue that he might succumb to a psychiatric illness. All of those who knew him well at work had no idea that he might do so.

As to his relapse, it was true that the employer by then knew that he had suffered a psychiatric illness and so was on notice that he was vulnerable. However, the Claimant, on his own account, ready and keen to return to work and was an experienced manager.

Notwithstanding the Claimant’s recent illness, the employer had been entitled to act on the basis that he would be able to assess whether he wished to take up a particular opportunity. Thus the Claimant’s return to work did not amount to a breach of duty. Nor could the employer have foreseen that offering him a temporary post at another store would cause a recurrence of the psychiatric illness.

What can we learn?

  • This case highlights that just because an employer is aware of some vulnerability, they are not inevitably liable for any psychiatric illness suffered. In order for the injury to be actionable, the employee has to show that the risk is that he would suffer the harm of the kind that he in fact suffered
  • Accordingly unless employees can demonstrate that the employer knew or ought to have known of such a risk, then it should be possible to mount a defence of such claims