The number of trade union personal injury cases against employers for stress-related illnesses rose 70 per cent last year to 783, according to a report by the Trades Union Congress.
The statistic raises questions on why more claims are being made. Are employees more litigious? Is the workplace more stressful? How does new legislation affect the number of claims? And what are lawyers' predictions about the amount of stress-related cases in the future?
Elizabeth Adams, employment partner at Beachcroft Wansbroughs, believes people are more aware of their rights in the workplace due to increased press coverage of employment law cases.
Adams says press coverage has increased because the stories attract the interest of the tabloids as well as the broadsheets.
She also attributes the rise in cases to a wider application in courts and tribunals of the Disabilities Discrimination Act 1995, which is increasingly applied to stress at work cases. She says: “It covers lots of these cases now because stress-related cases are being recognised as mental illnesses.”
Adams believes that lawyers are also becoming more innovative in the way they introduce claims for their clients. Traditionally lawyers did not bring stress-related cases into employment tribunals. But as Adams says: “You can now get good personal injury awards in an employment tribunal if it is linked to sex and race.”
But she believes that the number of cases has also been pushed up because employees face more stress at work than ever before, despite New Labour initiatives such as The Working Time Directive which was introduced over a year ago.
Adams says: “I think the world has become more sophisticated with communication being much faster. Employees now use email, faxes, the internet and lots of other ingenious things.” Adams believes that this contributes to “the long working hours culture”.
Pauline McArdle, employment partner at Denton Hall, agrees that work is now more stressful. She says: “We work the longest hours in Europe despite having the new working time rules.” The rules were introduced with the intention of reducing the hours people work, but McArdle points out: “We have seen no drop off in the hours people are working. And long hours are more stressful.”
McArdle thinks employee stress has also increased because the working environment has changed. She says: “People do not have a job for life any more. The only security is being seen to do a good job. That means working very hard. That added to lack of security increases stress. People feel they are in a stressful situation because they can't control their destiny.”
She says the rise in cases will continue. This is partly due to the increase in the limit for compensation for unfair dismissal linked to stress-related illnesses from £12,000 to £50,000. And the amount of time an employee must work at a company before being able to make a claim dropped from two years to one.
Geoffrey Mead, employment partner at Warner Cranston, has a different view on the impact of the new working time rules. Mead believes that they have not made a direct impact by reducing hours and therefore stress. He says that the rules have increased the number of cases because publicity surrounding them makes stress a legal issue in the minds of employees.
Mead says: “People became aware of having legal rights in relation to work and stress. Traditionally people only thought of claiming for physical injuries at work, but now they are focusing on stress as well. Media attention has contributed a lot.”
He thinks that trade unions are becoming more informed and pass on their knowledge about rights to employees who then step forward to build a case. “Trade unions play a big part in this,” he says.