Mr Eastern had a successful career as a manger at B&Q, having previously managed other large retail outlets. However, he became ill due to occupational stress and was absent from work for a period of five months, over which time he received medication and therapy. He returned to work on a phased basis at a more local, quieter store. This was not successful and he was re-certified as unfit to work due to depression.
The claimant raised an action against his employer on the basis that he became ill due to the negligence and/or breach of statutory duty on the part of his employer. A key element of his case was that his employer had failed to carry out a risk assessment in relation to stress.
The principal question the court had to consider was whether the claimant's injury was reasonably foreseeable.
1. In respect of the first period of absence, the court held it was not. In reaching this decision, the court took into account the claimant's longstanding and successful career working in similar environments with no previous psychiatric history.
2. In relation to the second period of absence following the claimant's relapse on returning to work, the court also held this was not foreseeable. The court held the claimant's return to work implied he considered himself fit to return. In these circumstances, the employer is entitled to take an employee at face value and there is no general obligation to make further enquiries of the employee as to their health. The court considered the fact that he was continuing to take medication was irrelevant as many employees in demanding roles are able to carry out their jobs whilst on medication.
3. Turning to the risk assessment, B&Q had a stress policy in place dealing with managing stress and inviting individuals to identify and notify them of any symptoms. The Judge considered Mr Eastern had failed to follow this advice.
This decision will reassure employers as the threshold for proving breach of duty remains high for employees and foreseeability of harm must be shown. Nevertheless, stress in the workplace should remain a concern for employers, considering the potential impact upon productivity and possibility of lengthy, expensive litigation.
One matter which employers may wish to consider in light of this case is implementing a stress policy to encourage employees to notify them of any work related stress issues, thereby shifting the onus to the employee to notify them of any concerns.