Employers are responsible for accidents or illnesses caused on work premises that are due to poor management or negligence on their part, but this principle extends beyond physical ailments and mishaps. Stress in the workplace is extremely common, and employers are liable for the harmful effects this can have on their staff if they do not deal with it properly.
Although a certain amount of stress may go with the territory in any job, and most people will form their own coping mechanisms for low-level stress, significant levels of stress can prove harmful for both mental and physical health, contributing to anxiety and long-term depression, as well as many physical conditions including bad backs, headaches, shoulder and neck pain, IBS and other issues. Where stress is avoidable but employers do not take action to mitigate the effects, they may find themselves legally liable.
This has particular relevance in disciplinary proceedings, where stress is likely to be considerable. However, where such matters are dealt with badly, there may be added reason for the employee bringing a case against their employer. A recent case involved allegations of bullying and sexual harassment against the British High Commissioner in Belize (the Yapp case). Mr Yapp was suspended, but the nature of the complaints against him were not explained.
Although the bullying claim was upheld, and he was issued with a final written warning, he never returned to work due to depression, and subsequently retired. Mr Yapp took action against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not because the disciplinary action was unfair but because the way the FCO went about it was unfair. Specifically, the FCO did not conduct an initial investigation and did not give him the chance to respond.
The suspension and the stress that this caused Mr Yapp contributed to his depression. The case is a cautionary example of how employers must be aware of the psychiatric effects on their employees of actions they take.
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