Employer liable for psychiatric injury to employee from overwork and stress16 January 2017 | Employer's Liability
- Whether the defendant employer breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff.
Castricum Brothers Pty Ltd (the defendant) operated an abattoir and meat processing business in Dandenong. Mr Joseph Roussety (the plaintiff) was employed by the defendant as a rendering plant operator from October 2000 to 2004, and then as the manager of the rendering plant (manager) from 2004 to September 2007.
Throughout the last three years of his employment as manager, the plaintiff worked between 55 to 70 hours every week and was on call 24 hours a day, including during his honeymoon. His workload increased because the plant he was managing had significant maintenance and staff shortages issues.
He repeatedly complained to the defendant’s director and operations manager about the condition of the plant equipment and his health, including that he was experiencing insomnia, was stressed and exhausted. After the plaintiff had worked 20 hours in a 26-hour period, the operations manager of the defendant insisted he attend a seminar, and told him that she had “grown tired” of his complaints when he protested and informed her that he had worked 20 hours and was exhausted. The plaintiff took stress-related sick leave in early 2007. In July 2007, the plaintiff told the defendant’s operations manager that he was going home because he was exhausted and light-headed, but was directed to stay, after which he fainted and remained on sick leave until he was made redundant several months later.
The Decision at Trial
At trial, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant had breached its duty of care to him as an employee by failing to address his concerns and that this had resulted in his psychiatric injury.
The defendant argued the plaintiff had eagerly agreed to take on a heavy workload when he was promoted to manager and that he was actively involved in the preparation of his new positon description. The defendant argued that an employer should not have to direct an employee to not perform the amount that they have willingly agreed to perform.
The court held that a reasonable employer in the position of the defendant, acting through its senior management, would have foreseen in early 2007 that there was a risk of the plaintiff suffering a recognised psychiatric injury as a result of his workload. By early 2007 the defendant was on notice the plaintiff may develop a psychiatric condition caused by his working conditions.
The court held that a reasonable employer would have taken a range of measures including monitoring the worker's condition, investigating the merits of his complaints instead of dismissing them "out-of-hand" and modifying his workload and the hours he was required to work. The failure to take any such steps constituted a breach of the defendant’s duty of care to the plaintiff and gave rise to his injury.
Implications For You
Employers should monitor the hours that employees are working and if employees are working excessive hours, offer them support and assistance.
Employers should also take employee complaints about stress or workload seriously and consider modified duties, additional support or, if the situation requires it, medical attention.