Employment Law

Stress at work – the extreme way out

When first introduced, health and safety laws were aimed at providing better and safer working conditions for all sorts of manual labour. That was needed because many manufacturers tried to save costs by using machinery which was dangerous to operate. It was just cheaper to replace an injured worker than to upgrade the machine.

Of course, all this has changed.

These days the hassle following a workplace accident, the paperwork, investigation, maybe even prosecution, is far too great. In a connected world its also not good PR anymore. Even China, which for a long time was considered an industrialist heaven with no worker rights or workplace protections, is changing. I am sure there are still many factories in China where you will find atrocious working conditions. But all international companies of a certain, global reputation – you know which I mean – know too well that they cant afford producing on the cheap anymore. Because someone somewhere will find out and post it on youtube and there goes years and years of carefully managed branding building. No, its just not worth it anymore.

But what happens to all the workers who dont produce anything? The ones who work in an office? Pencil-pushers like me and you? From a physical safety point of view, an office is a pretty risk-free place, leaving aside earthquakes and the odd nutter with a machine gun holding a grudge against ‘the government’ in general. You might suffer a paper cut sometime or spill hot tea on your trousers. But thats as dangerous as it gets.

Instead the office has now become a place where stress is the workplace health and safety issue number one. Stress is unproductive, stress makes people sick, stress makes people resign. And stress can even make people kill themselves, like this bank manager in Perth:


He didn’t succeed, though, with the killing-himself part, instead succeeded in Court which found that his employer contributed significantly to the stress he suffered. Hence now has to pay him a lot of money in compensation and damages. So, what is the lesson?

An employers obligation to provide a safe workplace includes their mental wellbeing. Meaning, any undue stress, any psychological pressure, can potentially lead to a claim under HSE laws. Or to a grievance if the employee resigns (constructive dismissal). An employer is therefore well advised that once on notice that an employee is overworked (which is the old-fashioned word for stress), to do something about it asap. Ideally, the employer has some mechanisms in place to prevent employees even getting to that stage, though this is almost impossible to implement. After all, stress is different for different people. Some employees freak out when given a deadline, others just strive on it. The few cases in NZ which made it to the Courts indicate a high threshold for stress claims under the HSE Act. Which is as it should be as health and safety offences are criminal offences, not civil employment matters.

So, under NZ law, would the bank manager also have succeeded? It depends whether a fair and reasonable employer in NZ would have put him under so much stress that a breakdown was foreseeable. So, was the stress that high? Looking at the facts again, we have a branch manager whose customer ratings are down and who has to explain that to 15 other managers in a teleconference. Is that too much pressure? Was he at risk losing his job over this? How was his performance otherwise? Can an employer expect a branch manager to justify bad performance to other managers (mind you – not his employees, instead people at the same level).

I would think so. The higher your position, the more you are expected to withstand the pressure. That’s why you were hired. That’s why you are paid that much. I assume that there was lots more to the case than what was reported.

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