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B&Q court case offers reassurance to bosses about failure to foresee staff stress

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According to a Health & Safety Executive report entitled “Mental Health and Stress in the Workplace: a Guide for Employers“, published in 1996, it was estimated that 360m working days were lost annually in the UK at a cost of £8bn. More recently, the government’s “Labour Force Survey“, saw stress account for 35 per cent of work-related ill health cases, with 43 per cent of all working days said to be lost due to ill health.

Occupational stress seems to be on the rise, and with it comes the potential for employees to take their bosses to court. However, employers will welcome the news that the recent High Court case of Easton v B&Q reinforces the hurdles staff will need to overcome in order to prove bosses liable – previously set by the 2002 case of Hatton v Sutherland.

Nonetheless, the B&Q court case highlights that there is often a fine line between not knowing that something is likely to happen and turning a blind eye to some rather clear signals.

Easton, a store manager at B&Q, became ill with depression while he was responsible for a store that was undergoing refurbishment and left work for five months. At court, he maintained that changes at work, such as the removal of night staff and the introduction of a new system called “Trade Point”, had placed him under great stress.

Yet the court found that any comments Easton had made to managers did not sufficiently state that such stress would put him at risk of falling ill – and that it could not have been foreseen that he would end up with a psychiatric injury.

Of course, one of the biggest debates regarding the case revolved around B&Q approaching Easton following his five-month absence to cover for a manager at another store for six to eight weeks. While Easton suggested he had been pressured into accepting and had thus suffered a relapse, the court found that B&Q was not in breach of its duty.

What “saved the day”, however, were that notes written by the employer at the time of the event didn’t match Easton’s descriptions. The judge said that if he accepted Easton’s version “there might have been a basis for concluding that further psychiatric illness was a foreseeable consequence of dealing with him in that way”. Needless to say, Easton’s witness evidence ended up undermining his success at court, with judge suggesting that Easton’s condition had affected his perception of the events that had taken place. 

Furthermore, the B&Q staff handbook, of which the court was assured Easton was aware of, required him to talk to his manager if he felt stressed at work. The court claimed Easton had not done so. In fact, the court found that B&Q had no knowledge that Easton was suffering from stress. It also took into account Easton’s previous role as manager for a large supermarket chain and found he was therefore capable of doing the role.

However, had B&Q not had such notes and been so vigilant on its procedures, the court may have ruled in favour of Easton. After all, the fact that B&Q approached him to take on a temporary management role while he was still undertaking a phased return to work might have been ruled as a breach of the duty of care. It serves as a reminder that employers need to keep a sharp eye on stress levels, ensure that staff know they can speak to bosses if they feel there is too much pressure at work and create a concise and clear policy for stress at work.

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