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Mullen v Accenture Services Ltd, High Court, 16 July 2010

1 November 2010
The issues

Stress at work – bullying – foreseeability – management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

The facts

The Claimant worked for a firm of management consultants on a computer project. He said he had suffered stress at work, victimisation and bullying by his line manager. He had a history of psychological vulnerability which was unknown to his employer. He was assigned to a particular project. Before the project began the employer carried out a risk assessment, pursuant to the management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, Regulation 3. Stress levels were assessed as “tolerable”. As the project progressed, over a 2 month period, the Claimant alleged that he was humiliated in front of other members of staff, shouted at and sworn at regularly by his line manager, made to work long hours and put under immense pressure. As a result he suffered a mental breakdown. He claimed damages, alleging victimisation and bullying, causing psychiatric injury as a result of stress at work and in particular alleged that the employer was in breach of Regulation 3 by failing to carry out a review as the stress levels increased after the project went live and that consequently, once there was a proven breach it was unnecessary to prove foreseeability.

The decision

The Claimant believed he had been bullied. Following the decision in H v Isle of Wight, the Court had to go beyond the Claimant’s perception. It was not right to assess what did or did not amount to bullying solely by regard to the victim’s subjective perception. An objective assessment of the observed behaviour was necessary, taken in conjunction with any apparent vulnerability in the target of the behaviour complained of. Blunt language and inappropriate banter may have been used, but the motivation was solely the desire to achieve the best for the project. The Claimant was not at the receiving end of genuinely offensive and unacceptable behaviour. There might be a fine line between strong management and bullying but viewing the evidence objectively, that line had not been crossed.

It could not be right that if there was a breach of Regulation 3, it was not necessary to prove that any particular harm was foreseeable. If that were the case, the clear cut law on causation would be bypassed. Following Barber v Somerset County Council, there had to be foreseeability on the part of the employer in respect of a particular illness suffered by the particular employee. In this case there had not been bullying, and even if there had been, there had been no real warning signs of impending harm.

Claim dismissed.

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