The recent award of pounds 67,000 to former Birmingham City Council
housing officer Beverley Lancaster, after a court upheld claims that
work place stress had ruined her health, should focus the minds of PR
employers on what liabilities they may occur.
What is the likelihood of a Klondike-like rush to law by those working
in what is undoubtedly a stressful industry, with long hours, constantly
changing workloads and often hard to please clients?
No less importantly, what can employers do to safeguard the mental and
physical wellbeing of their employees?
As far as legal liability is concerned, the landmark case is that of
John Walker versus Northumberland County Council.
In 1986, 57-year-old Walker, a senior social services officer with the
council since 1970, suffered a nervous breakdown. His symptoms included
mental exhaustion, acute anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to
cope with stress.
Despite these problems, he was eager to return to work and, in March
1987 resumed his old job. As his workload increased between March and
July 1987, Walker again experienced excessive stress and suffered
another breakdown in late-September. In February 1988, he was dismissed
by the council on the grounds of permanent ill health.
At the High Court, Mr Justice Colman found his employers had acted
unreasonably, specifically in not providing extra support for Walker
even when aware of his psychological problems. He was given leave to
claim up to pounds 200,000.
The key issue arising from this sad case is that the employer’s duty of
care extends to taking reasonable steps to protect staff from
foreseeable physical and psychological risk.
Since people differ in their ability to cope with stress, identifying
just what those foreseeable risks may be can raise practical
Once an employee is known to have a particular susceptibility to stress,
however, the employer must take reasonable measures to safeguard him or
her from any further harm.
Some employees develop better personal and professional strategies for
coping with stresses than others. But no matter how resilient,
situations can arise in which a combination of circumstances results in
staff falling victim to excessive stress.
As a therapist friend of mine put it, dealing with stress is like
wrestling alligators. However good you are at it, there may still come a
time when you are overwhelmed.
Becoming overwhelmed today can prove not just a tragedy for the
individual but an expensive one for an employer. In the light of this,
companies should take three steps to safeguard both themselves and their
First, they need to pinpoint activities or tasks likely to generate high
levels of work-related stress and identify the actions necessary to
reduce or eliminate that risk.
Second, they must train managers to recognise stress symptoms and create
an environment which allows stressed employees to find help within their
Finally, they must produce policy guidelines as to how problems should
be referred to the appropriate experts and any recommended remedial
When managed correctly, stress is vital to our health and happiness.
Under reasonable pressure we perform more effectively, more efficiently
and more happily. If allowed to run out of control, however, stress
rapidly turns into distress, destroying the lives and hopes of those who
become its unwitting victims.