If you have a psychiatric injury caused by stress at work, it’s not clear how to claim for this as a personal injury; here, Sarah Huntbach talks through a recent case, which was initially rejected by a trade union.     

Sarah’s client was a teacher at a large inner-city school and member of the school’s senior leadership team. As with most jobs and professions, the continuing development and usage of electronic means of communication are blurring the lines of working hours and taking breaks, making it more important to set clear boundaries.  

The Claimant was responsible for the management and reporting of pupil progress data. Regular tracking of a pupil’s progress has become more important both for the benefit of the pupil and the external reflection and monitoring of a school. Governors require regular reporting on various performance data, in very different ways depending on whether comparing boys and girls or different ethnic groups.

To manage this role in the school allegedly required administrative support, of which there was an alleged lack, which our client had reported on many occasions to her line manager, the head teacher.

For our client to meet her professional standards, as well as the reporting requirements, it was alleged she undertook a considerable amount of the administrative work herself. Doing so required our client to work and send emails into the early hours of the morning daily.

Ultimately, our client faced with an issue of conflict between her own professional standard and a request from an examination board, which was, we pleaded, the “straw that broke the camel’s back”; our client went off work and tendered her resignation, and was subsequently diagnosed with severe depression. 

The Claimant sought the support of her trade union, who refused to take the legal claim on her behalf, their opinion being there were no prospects of success, which is when she instructed us to act on her behalf.

After taking evidence from our client, we requested disclosure of key documents such as personnel file, line management information for the relevant roles within the school, and policies for the management of stress and wellbeing. 

The Defendant school denied liability for the claim on the grounds that the Claimant was, through her own ways of working, “non-delegation” and “control”, the cause of her injury.  We obtained psychiatric evidence to support the claim that, despite the Claimant having a history of depressive illness and difficult family circumstances, the prevailing cause of the breakdown and end of her employment was due to unreasonable demands and working practices at work.

To succeed with the claim, it was necessary for us to establish that our client had made her employer aware of the stress she was under and reasons for it and that there were clear signs of impending harm to her health. Additionally, we were able to show that the employer knew about vulnerability to stress-related injury through their awareness of a history of depression. 

We were able to show that because of the lack of documentation from the school that there had been no risk assessment done of the role expected of our client. It was our case that a risk assessment would have shown and exposed the need for and lack of administrative support. In addition, the school couldn’t identify policies in operation for the management and promotion of the well-being of employees. 

Further to succeed with a claim, it was necessary for us to be able to show that there were reasonable steps that would be expected of a responsible employer that would have addressed the situation and led to an avoidance of the injury. 

Court proceedings were issued, and the Court ordered a Directions timetable to take the case through to a Trial. At a late stage in the proceedings, the solicitors representing the school offered a roundtable meeting to attempt to settle out of court, where we were able to reach agreeable terms.

Whilst it can be tricky to prove the cause of a psychiatric injury, the importance placed on mental health shouldn’t be any less than that of a physical injury. Although the process caused additional stress to our client, the acknowledgement of the damage and loss caused by unreasonable demands and pressure at work was of significant importance. Settling out of court avoided the need to go through what could be a traumatic experience, and our client can now focus on her health and well-being.

Further information

If you have any questions relating to this case, please contact Sarah Huntbach.