In the first criminal prosecution of its type a firm pleaded guilty to a charge under the Health and Safety in Act. The employee had raised her concerns over her work-load with the employer on several occasions, but the employer did not act to fix the problem.

The firm was fined $8,000 and ordered to pay the employee $1,300 for failing to address the work-place stress.  This was the first prosecution of its kind following a law change in 2002, and we can expect more prosecutions to follow.

It follows recent cases where hundreds of thousands of dollars have been awarded in civil cases to employees who suffer work related stress.

The dangers are not only the risk of criminal prosecution.  Employees can also claim in the Employment Relations Authority and Employment Court for unfair dismissal and breaches of employment agreements.  In this case, the worker resigned, and ultimately received a confidential settlement of her personal grievance claim – in addition to the criminal prosecution taken by OSH.

Such employment claims are not new.  The leading case is that of a probation officer who sued the Department of Corrections for failing to address his work-place stress.

He had been forced to retire on medical grounds, following a lengthy period of excess work.  This included being responsible for three times as many files as he should have been.  At his medical retirement he was assessed as being 90% disabled due to heart surgery and other health problems, all medically linked to his overwork and work stress.

The Employment Court found that the work-place stress caused his health problems, and that they were a direct result of his employer failing to address the causes of his stress.  In that case, he was awarded 14 years loss of salary.  The total award against the employer ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is important to have an active strategy to address work-place safety, including work-place stress.  An employer has a duty to take all reasonable steps to safeguard health.  Steps an employer can take include:

  • Identifying signs of stress, including increased absenteeism.
  • Monitoring workloads to ensure they comply with any guidelines.
  • Providing information and training for employees on stress.
  • Setting up a process by which concerns about overwork can be raised, and ensuring they are investigated properly.
  • Ensuring that your agreements include the right to ask an employee to attend a medical practitioner of your choice.
  • Being aware of any personal factors that may make an employee more susceptible to workplace stress.

The key in many of these cases is that the stressed employees raised their concerns with the employer, yet the employer took no action.  When a concern is raised around stress, always act upon it.  If a problem is foreseeable or can be anticipated, act to resolve it.  Ignoring a problem can be very costly.