This recent judgment from the Court of Appeal highlights the need for employers to be proactive when a possible stress issue is brought to their attention.

D, the claimant, was a payroll manager. Due to internal reorganisations and budget cuts, her workload increased and at one point she was working a 60-hour week. She frequently expressed her concerns over her levels of stress. The employer failed to reduce her workload or give her additional resources to deal with it, despite her requests. She regularly broke down in tears at work and eventually had a nervous breakdown in June 2001.

For a number of years, the case of Sutherland –v- Hatton has provided employers with a checklist of issues to consider how stress related issues should be dealt with.

Intel argued that they had provided a free helpline service to all employees which discharged their duty of care, citing the comments in Hatton that such a service makes the employer “unlikely to be found in breach of duty” and that D could have chosen to leave her employment if the stress became unbearable.

The Court of Appeal found that a helpline in itself could not have addressed the internal problems at Intel that led to D’s unmanageable workload. At most, it would have encouraged D to see a doctor. The court stated that a helpline was not a “panacea by which employers can discharge their duty of care in all cases.”

As D’s illness was reasonably foreseeable by her employer, given her prior history of depression and prior breakdowns, the court stated that: “…the indications of impending harm were plain enough for the appellants to realise that immediate action was required”. The management had had the ability to act on the warning signs but did not do so.

Employers should bear this case in mind when dealing with employee stress, particularly in the light of the Court of Appeal’s decision that a helpline alone will not always be enough to discharge the employer’s duty of care.