Employers have a duty towards their employees – to protect them from injury and to provide them with a safe environment in which to work.
These are not un-related. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act of 2005 specifies that a personal injury includes “any injury, disease, disability, occupational illness or any impairment of physical or mental condition” that is attributable to work.
The impact? Employees who feel that they have developed such a mental condition as a result of their work can now bring a personal injury claim.
In a 2007 ruling (DEC-E2007-025) the Equality Tribunal found that an employer had “discriminated against the complainant on the disability ground”. The employer concerned had disputed that the employee even had a disability. The case was significant in two respects.
- The Tribunal agreed that the employee had a disability – that “the condition or illness which the complainant was suffering from in the course of her absences, depression, stress and anxiety fall within the definition of disability”.
- The Equality Officer accepted that the employee’s disability had occurred as a result of work. “work related depression”, “work related stress”.
This case served to broaden the understanding of “disability” as defined in Ireland’s equality legislation. It also added legal weight to how important it is for employers to be managing stress in the workplace.
So employees can now bring personal injury claims or claim discrimination – both for mental health reasons and not just physical.
Are you familiar with this new landscape? Is the mental health of your employees an active concern? Are you focussed on preventing such claims? Are you clear on how you should deal with such claims if they arise?
If any of these questions cause you concern read on because another landmark High Court Case – McGrath versus Trintech provides helpful guidance to Irish employers.
The employee concerned claimed that his employer had liability for a psychological injury that he had suffered. The employee also claimed that the terms of his employment had been breached.
The Court ruled that the “plaintiff is entitled to damages for the breach of his contract”. As a result of this the employee was awarded a year’s salary and a bonus of 30%.
However, in terms of the employee’s claim of liability for the psychological injury, the Court ruled that the “fundamental test is whether the defendant fell below the standard to be properly expected of a reasonable and prudent employer. In my view it did not.” This is the crucial benchmark for Irish employers. How can you know whether or not you pass that fundamental test?
The significance of the McGrath versus Trintech case was that the Judge, Miss Justice Laffoy, used 16 so-called propositions to guide the Court’s assessment of whether the employer had performed adequately.
Irish employers should now also use the same 16 propositions. They are the Hatton principles and you can view them in the ruling Sutherland versus Hatton. The HSA’s Work Related Stress – A Guide For Employers may also be of assistance.
Your responsibilities as an employer are complex. To get expert guidance in the area of managing mental health issues in the workplace call Mary Cullen, Patrick Foley or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.