Walker v Northumberland County Council
Walker was a social worker with a heavy workload of child abuse cases. He had a nervous breakdown and returned to work some five months later having been promised assistance and a reduced workload. The promised assistance did not materialise, and he suffered another breakdown.
This was a landmark case because the High Court held that the local authority was liable for psychiatric damage caused to the social worker through stress. It was the first major case of an employer being held liable for stress at work. The local authority had failed to provide assistance or reduce Walker’s workload and, therefore, was in breach of its duty of care, and the risk was reasonably foreseeable. The employer made a payment of £175,000 to the employee in an out-of-court settlement.
- For a workplace to be considered safe, there must be both safe premises and a safe working system and environment.
- Employers should be on notice of a risk of harm if, for example, an employee is absent in circumstances that may indicate they are suffering from stress, and organisations should take adequate steps to provide help to employees when they return.
- The duty to provide a safe system of working for employees includes a duty to protect them from psychiatric harm and a failure to do this could lead to a claim if the harm is reasonably foreseeable.