An assessment of employer liability for workplace stress

Graeme Lockwood*, Claire Henderson, Stephen Stansfeld

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
900 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: This study aims to examine workplace stress in a random sample of litigated cases heard in UK courts. The majority of claims related to clinical depression. The alleged causes of workplace stress most commonly cited in the litigation included excessive workload, followed by poor management practices; organisational, economic or technical changes; aggressive management style; and bullying by co-workers. 

Design/methodology/approach: The term claimant is used to refer to the worker who made the original complaint of workplace stress, and the term defendant refers to the employing organisation defending the claim. In an attempt to establish the number and type of claims brought forward, the population of individual case records relating to workplace stress was accessed electronically from a variety of legal databases. 

Findings: The presence of effective workplace stress management policies were important interventions that played a particularly significant role in avoiding legal action and reducing employees’ detrimental experiences. A significant finding was that 94 per cent of the cases were found in favour of the employer as the defendant, and the implications of this for managerial practice are suggested. This analysis of 75 cases between 1992-2014 will shed valuable light on the nature of workplace stress claims heard in the courts and the likelihood of the claimant employee’s success in such cases. 

Research limitations/implications: Further work could be undertaken to examine the extent to which the legal framework could be regarded as encouraging a compensation culture and placing excessive burdens on employing organisations. This paper assesses the scope of liability for workplace stress through an analysis of some of the legal claims made and evaluates whether these sorts of fears are justified. 

Practical implications: These court cases are real scenarios in which various organisations faced civil action arising from workplace stress claims. The main contribution that this research makes to the existing body of literature on the subject is to discern the different contexts that led to litigation in these cases. Social implications: Researchers have reported on the negative consequences associated with workplace stress, both for individuals and organisations (Cooper and Marshall, 1976). It has been recognised that employers have a duty, which is in many cases enforceable by law, to ensure that employees do not become ill (Michie, 2002). The aim of this paper is to analyse the legal record on litigation since 1992 and discuss how the findings inform the wider literature. 

Originality/value: Workplace stress claims have been described as the “next growth area” in claims for psychiatric illness (Mullany and Handford, 1997; Elvin, 2008; Horsey and Rackley, 2009). Hugh Collins stated “owing to the limitations of the statutory compensatory scheme in the UK […] private law has been used to expand the range of protection against illness […] in the workplace” (Collins, 2003). To understand how court decisions are changing, the development of this body of law needs to be traced (Ivancevich et al., 1985).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-216
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of Law and Management
Issue number2
Early online date13 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 13 Mar 2017


  • Legal rights
  • Management
  • Workplace stress


Dive into the research topics of 'An assessment of employer liability for workplace stress'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this