Work stress is unavoidable, and we have all experienced it at one point or another. Unrealistic workloads, high expectations, strict deadlines, long hours and socio-personal issues with fellow colleagues can all contribute to work-related stress. Unsurprisingly, stress claims also known as physiatric injury claims continue to gain prevalence and have become an inherent part of today’s business culture. We regularly hear about those individuals who have taken medical leave, an indefinite leave of absence or have simply stopped working altogether. Bundled under the umbrella of “being burnt out” are a myriad of physiatric injury claims. That is not to say that other forms of non-work related injury (be they psychological or physical, pre-existing or sudden) cannot come under this umbrella.
Just because a worker has succumbed to a psychiatric injury does not automatically mean that their employer is at fault and liable to compensate them for it. There is a strict legal test which governs the extent of an employer’s liability in such circumstances. It is therefore very important that employers are aware of their potential liability when it comes to psychiatric injury claims. Lest they assume responsibility for an injury which, in retrospect, they did not need to assume responsibility for.
The Three Facets of a Psychiatric Injury Claim
Employers will be deemed liable for psychiatric injuries suffered by their workers. The qualification to this broad statement is that an employer’s liability will only be enlivened if, and only if, the injury arose as a direct result of the employee’s work activities. A causal connection between the psychiatric injury in question and the employee’s work efforts must be demonstrated. It is not permissible for an employee to attempt to attribute their personal, non-work related misfortunes to their employer. Accordingly, substantiation of the claim is key.
Turning our attention to psychiatric injury claims that arise as a direct consequence of an employee’s work activities, for an employee to put forth a valid psychiatric injury claim they must satisfy the following three pre-conditions:
- Recognised psychiatric illness: The employee must at the outset show that they have sustained a “recognised psychiatric illness”. When we speak of a ‘recognised psychiatric illness’ we are of course referring to the magnitude of conditions that are formally recognised by the medical profession. In this regard, it is not enough that the employee merely feels distressed, anxious or overwhelmed. A professional medical diagnosis and not merely a list of symptoms are required. Having said that, just because an employee may have a pre-disposition or susceptibility to a particular psychiatric illness or group of illnesses does not dissolve the employer of liability. It is a well recognised legal principle that a company takes their workers as they find them. In this regard, employers must be vigilant and take special care to avoid and alleviate pre-cursors to psychiatric injury. One recognised pre-cursors include workplace bullying and harassment. Bullying and harassment may include; intimidation tactics, verbal abuse or threats, ridicule, exclusion and isolation practices, and unjustifiable criticism. As a general note, all employers are under a contractual duty to provide their workers with a safe working environment.
- Reasonable foreseeability: The second hurdle that an employee must overcome before effectively mounting a psychiatric injury claim is showing that the type of injury they sustained was reasonably foreseeable. To put it another way, it must have been reasonably apparent that the employee would eventually fall victim to the injury as a result of their work routine or another aspect of their work life. What is reasonably foreseeable will depend on the nature and environment of the work activity. The hurdle can be a difficult one to overcome and will ultimately require the employee to establish that: a) the worker suffered or was in the presence of a sudden and traumatic work event; b) the employee displayed visible signs of trauma over a defined period which reasonably illustrated that the worker was succumbing to a psychiatric illness.
- Failure to take reasonable preventative action: The last limb of the test requires the employee to show that their employer failed to take reasonable steps to prevent or alleviate the risk of them acquiring a psychiatric illness. Again, this will be assessed against the nature of the work activities which collectively make up the employee’s role. In a sense, this requirement imposes a burden on the employers to look into the future and take preventative measures to minimise the risk of injury.
A special exception to the above is that an employer will not be held liable for an employee’s psychiatric injury in circumstances where the injury arose as a direct result of the employee undertaking tasks that they were expressly contracted to perform as a part of their employment. The exception is not absolute, and an employer may be held liable for a psychiatric injury sustained as a direct result of an employee performing contracted activities where:
- the employer varies the duties to be performed after the contract of employment has been executed; or
- terms are implied into the employment relationship under a legislative enactment or the common law.
In today’s hectic work environment, it is important that both employers and employees are aware of their rights, responsibilities and courses of action when something goes wrong. If a psychiatric illness is affecting you or someone that works for you, the best thing to do is try to address the cause of the problem and alleviate the damage sooner rather than later.
If you would like to know more about psychiatric injury claims or your liability as an employer, contact our employment lawyers.