The High Court recently heard the claim brought by Mr Eastman against his former employer B&Q Plc;  EWHC 880. Mr Eastman had worked for B&Q for a number of years as a highly regarded store manager.
In 2009/10 a number of factors led to an increase in workload for Mr Eastman, including the removal of night shift workers to replenish stock (this was now carried out during opening hours) and the introduction of a ‘trade point’ for the building trade. Mr Eastman was also overlooked for promotion.
As a result of these cumulative issues, Mr Eastman was signed off work with stress and was diagnosed with depression. He was absent from work for five months, after which he attempted a phased return to work. On the fourth day of his return, his regional manager offered him a temporary position as a manager in another large store. Mr Eastman said he was pressured into accepting this role even though he did not want it, although the manager denied this. Mr Eastman was absent again from work following this conversation and he never worked for B&Q again.
Mr Eastman brought a claim for damages for psychiatric illness caused by work related stress. The judge concluded that he had not complained as significantly as he had alleged about the changes occurring in his store in 2010. He found that although Mr Eastman mentioned the issues, he wanted to demonstrate that he has a capable manager who was able to deal with them.
The judge made clear that in cases of this type, the key issue to consider was whether injury to health of a particular employee attributable to stress at work was reasonably foreseeable; such foreseeability depended on what the employer knew, or ought reasonably to have known, about the employee. An employer was entitled to assume that an employee could withstand the normal pressures of a job unless they knew of a particular problem or vulnerability. When considering this issue, relevant factors included the nature and extent of the work done by the employee; whether the work was more than normal for that particular job and whether the demands made of the employee were more than those made of other employees in comparable positions. It was also pertinent to consider whether other people undertaking the same role were exhibiting signs of stress or abnormal level of absenteeism or sickness.
In order to trigger a duty on the employer to take steps to assist an employee, the indications of impending harm to them need to be plain enough for a reasonable employer to realise that they should do something about it – and an employer was only in breach of its duty to an employee if they failed to take steps which were reasonable in all the circumstances, bearing in mind the significance of the risk of harm occurring, the potential gravity of the harm, and the costs and practicability of preventing it.
In this case the Judge found that Mr Eastman had failed to show that there was a foreseeable risk of harm to him; he was an experienced manager with no previous history of psychiatric problems.
There was no suggestion that he might succumb to such illness and his doing so came as a surprise to all. Therefore, there was nothing about Mr Easton which put anyone on notice that he might suffer psychiatric illness nor was there anything about store managers in general that gave rise to foresight of such a risk. In respect of the relapse, the Judge noted that having rejected Mr Eastman’s account of being pressured to accept a new role, it was not reasonable to conclude that a relapse was a foreseeable in those circumstances. Mr Eastman’s claim therefore failed.
Employers need to be aware of the possibility and foreseeability of their employees suffering from stress at work and take steps to ensure that where risk factors are identified, these are addressed. Employees need to ensure that if they do have issues, that these are brought to the attention of management so that they can be dealt with rather than left to fester and possibly worsen.
Safia Tharoo, Barrister, 42 Bedford Row, London