Illnesses related to workplace stress are endemic for employees of every level of seniority.
Work can be very stressful, and employees sometimes end up quite ill as a result. But even where an employee gets sick as a direct result of something at work, the employer is not necessarily responsible.
Not many employees become as ill as Maria Amaral did, as is described in her case against the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency Ltd. Despite causing her illness, however, her employer was not liable.
Amaral had worked for her employer for more than 20 years. She applied to become the manager of her department, but the employer selected someone else instead. The employer acknowledged that Amaral was a hard worker, but felt she wasn’t the right person for the position. Amaral was deeply resentful. She felt that the decision was not objective. Amaral’s new manager was a no-nonsense taskmistress who did not step gingerly around Amaral’s disappointment. To make matters worse, Amaral had to train her new manager.
The new manager asked Amaral to write a letter to a customer. Amaral refused saying that this was a task for the management job the employer had refused to give to her. Confused and somewhat annoyed, the employer reprimanded her and instructed her to write the letter. After the incident, Amaral’s performance began to deteriorate. Her productivity went down, while her lateness and absenteeism went up. At the same time, she began to look dishevelled and fatigued. She was seen crying a few times at work. Amaral told one manager that she was on medication for stress and was seeing her doctor. The employer focused on the performance issues. It reduced her responsibilities and put her on probation.
Amaral rapidly descended into the severest depression. She said that if she could find a gun she would shoot everyone at work and then herself. She attempted suicide several times, sometimes in front of her children. She was confined to a mental institution, and she never worked again. The court assessed her damages at over $1.5 million.
Amaral sued the employer for intentional infliction of mental suffering. The court held that to make out such a tort it was necessary to show flagrant and extreme conduct, plainly calculated to produce some effect of the kind produced, and a visible and provable illness.
The court found that the employer had caused Amaral’s depression by passing her over for the promotion and then disciplining her. It ruled, however, that the employer’s conduct was firm but fair. The court upheld the employer’s right to make proportionate and reasonable responses to legitimate employee problems, such as declining performance and punctuality. The employer’s progressive discipline and transfer of responsibilities stayed within those bounds.
A crucial point for the court was that the employer did not know Amaral was ill, because Amaral never told the employer. The court was also reluctant to find that the employer should have known about the illness. As a result, the court pointed out that the employer had in no way failed to accommodate the illness.
An even more crucial point was the employer’s lack of malice. The court noted that the employer had been unsympathetic to Amaral. Her manager did not sugar coat her legitimate criticism of Amaral. When Amaral’s performance became problematic, the employer changed Amaral’s responsibilities in part so that it would be able to terminate her if she failed in her new functions. Nonetheless, the court stressed that these were permissible, reasonable actions. Amaral was unable to show any intention by the employer to harm her or any knowledge that its actions were likely to harm her. Ultimately, this was fatal to the claim.
Amaral also argued, in the alternative, that the employer was liable for negligent infliction of mental suffering. The court affirmed that there is no tort of negligent infliction of mental suffering in the employment context.
The Amaral decision underlines the importance of an employer’s actual knowledge of an employee’s illness. Until the employer is put on notice of an employee’s vulnerability, the employer will not likely face liability when a fragile employee suffers from the emotional rough-and-tumble of the workplace. The decision in this case also upholds the employer’s traditional prerogatives to reasonably promote, manage and discipline its employees in the pursuit of its legitimate goals. Unless an employee can show that an employer acted out of malice, illnesses stemming from workplace stress and disappointments will not be successful in a tort claim against the employer.