The Employment Court has recently awarded a record $1.8 million payout to two employees (a husband and wife) who worked as school counsellors at a Hamilton high school and suffered immense traumatising events, namely encountering 32 deaths in the school community during their 16 years employment.

The counsellors had left working for the school in 2012, raising unjustified action grievances, alleging that the school board failed to meet its obligations of health and safety, workload management, and workplace conditions in an appropriate manner.

The Judge found that the recurring and long-lasting nature of instances relating to the counsellor’s workload did not lead to any proactive steps being taken to mitigate and manage risks, which included the lack of any formal health and safety plan being in place for the counsellor’s work.

The counsellors said that this led them to suffer chronic fatigue, severe exhaustion, and stress; which was shortly followed by a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Judge also found that there were a series of actions by the high school, which in accumulation, resulted in personal grievances.

The Judge awarded the counsellors damages totaling $1,792,317. The award of damages is intended to compensate the counsellors for:

  • Present and ongoing mental harm;
  • Lost remuneration due to excessive and overtime working hours;
  • Related superannuation losses;
  • The sale of a rental property at a loss to enable the counsellors to meet daily living expenses after stopping work in 2012 and the associated lost rental income because of the sale;
  • Foreseeable psychological treatment fees; and
  • Interest on lost income and losses on superannuation.

This is a landmark decision which shows the gravity of the health issues suffered by the two counsellors and the record measure of damages which have been awarded to acknowledge the ongoing challenges of the workplace.

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Alan Knowsley and Raiyan Azmi