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Walker v Northumberland County Council

 

Walker v Northumberland County Council [1995] IRLR 35


Stress, ‘Breach of its duty of care in failing to take reasonable steps to avoid exposing the employee to a health endangering workload.’
Established the precedent that an employer can be held liable for mental injury to an employee caused by work-related stress.

Facts

the plaintiff, a social worker in charge of a team of field workers had reported his stress, arising out of a greatly increased workload handling child abuse cases, to his superiors and suggested a restructuring of services. This was refused and the plaintiff suffered a nervous breakdown. On his return to work the plaintiff was given to understand that he would have an assistant to ease his workload, but it transpired that this assistant was only intermittently available. He suffered a second breakdown and had to retire.

The Decision

The council was found to have breached its duty in respect of the second nervous breakdown, though not the first. After the first breakdown, it had notice of the particular risk facing the plaintiff and could have taken steps to reduce the stress, by reducing his workload and providing greater assistance. The court accepted that this could have caused some disruption to other services provided by the council, but this did not outweigh the obligation to protect the plaintiff against a serious risk to his health.

The decision is distinguishable, but what matters is the view that an employer can be under a duty of care to provide an employee with assistance, of uncertain scope and duration, to enable him to perform his contractual duties.
 

Note

Estimated cost to the employer of “Management failure” was over £400,000.

This included:

* Damages of £175,000

* £150,000 for the 2 week trial

* Sick pay

* Ill health pension
 

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