Business Law & Compliance

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Employees connected 24/7: Beware the legal pitfalls

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Personal Injury Claims

Long hours are often cited as partly to blame for injury to health in cases involving excessive workload. 

If an employee has regularly been working in excess of their contractual hours, particularly if they have complained about this fact, this may constitute one of the ‘impending signs of injury to health’. 

Where an employer is on notice of a potential injury to health, and fails to take adequate steps to protect their employee, they could be liable for damage to that person’s health.

Successful claims of psychiatric injury against companies are relatively rare. However, where an employee succeeds in establishing employer’s liability for a serious psychiatric injury, High Court damages can be significant.

For example, in the case of Barber v Somerset County Council [2004] UKHL 13, in which the damages awarded to a teacher for the employer’s failure to make inquiries about his health on his return from time off work for stress, and in not reducing his workload, amounted to £72,547.

A worker who is constantly on call and whose response time eats into their rest periods and time off is likely to be more susceptible to stress-related illness.

The CIPD’s Absence Management Survey 2014 showed that stress remains one of the most common causes of long-and short-term sickness. Two-fifths of firms reported an increase in stress-related absence over the previous year.

So what can be done?

A healthy workforce is one in which staff are engaged and positive, who do not feel obligated to respond to out-of-hours calls and emails, but only do so if they choose. 

To counter the risks there are steps an employer can take:

  • Target the prevailing culture of long hours and ‘presenteeism’. Professor Cary Cooper, in a speech to the British Psychological Society in May 2015, stressed the need to challenge the prevailing view that the ‘ideal worker is one who is always available’.
  • Set an example. If bosses are sick, they should not go to work.
  • Create a clear policy. The German Labour Minister’s code says “no one who is reachable through mobile access and a mobile phone is obliged to use these outside of individual working hours.”
  • Monitor working time. Remember that this will include time spent responding to calls and emails outside of traditional working hours.
  • Take any reports / complaints of overwork, long hours and stress seriously and establish support systems to assist the employee with their job if it is needed.
  • Consider whether devices which facilitate external contact are really necessary in particular jobs.
  • Line managers should be trained and aware of the risks of the prevailing culture and not impose any unnecessary expectations on their staff.

Amanda Okill is an associate and employment law expert at Kent law firm Furley Page.

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