Stress in the workplace – why employers should be anxious
Earlier this year I read a troubling article in the Law Society Gazette stating one in 15 junior lawyers had suicidal thoughts. This struck me as worrying, especially when coupled with recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics indicating work-related stress was the leading cause of work-related ill health in 2018. With more than 15.4 million working days lost and one in 15 junior lawyers experiencing suicidal thoughts, surely this trend is something employers need to be concerned about.
The HSE defines stress as an ‘adverse reaction’ to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on an individual. It is a fairly broad definition. Stress, particularly in law, is not uncommon and I would challenge lawyers who say they have never experienced some form of stress at work. The issue is complex and stress is not always a negative thing – working to a deadline could qualify as stressful, but would this give rise to a claim?
When claiming negligence, it is accepted that employers have a duty of care to their employees. Given this duty, the hurdle to overcome is whether the conduct of an employer has amounted to a breach of their duty, for example in creating a hostile working environment, failing to provide adequate support, or exhibiting unfair and arbitrary treatment of their employees. However, if you can prove a breach of duty, you are not necessarily home and dry. For a negligence claim to be successful it must also be shown that you have suffered a recognised psychiatric injury that would have been foreseeable to the employer – and it is worth noting that the psychiatric injury must have been caused specifically as a result of the circumstances at work.
Returning to the Gazette article’s statement that one in 15 junior lawyers had suicidal thoughts, I think employers should be more worried now than ever before. If employers do not ensure the mental well-being of their employees, and that failure leads to an employee committing suicide, they could be held liable for significant negligence claims. With articles such as the Gazette’s increasingly shining a light on this troubling area, there is no excuse for firms and businesses not to think about the mental well-being of their staff – it is essential to start taking action before it is too late.
James Knight. Personal Injury department.General, George Ide, News, Personal Injury Blog