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Suicide in the City: The employer’s exposure

Sadly, suicide seems to be on the increase in the City. Recently two senior U.S. investment bankers committed suicide within two days of each other. Gabriel Magee, a 39-year-old senior executive from JPMorgan, jumped to his death from the top of the bank’s European HQ in Canary Wharf in full view of his traumatised co-workers. William Broeksmit, who was 58 and retired from Deutsche Bank where he had been a highly regarded risk management expert, hanged himself at his London home.

In recent years there have been no fewer than three suicides from the roof terrace of the Coq D’Argent restaurant in the Square Mile and it seems that the financial crisis sparked a national increase in the number of people who threw themselves under trains. The government’s “Happiness Index” reveals that the levels of work-related stress in the capital are the highest in the country and the sense of well-being among the lowest. While it may seem that the City is a dangerous place, however, statistics reveal that suicide rates in London did not rise significantly during the financial crisis compared with the rest of the country.

Whatever the statistics, every suicide is a tragedy, devastating the lives of family and friends and causing shock waves of grief, trauma and often incomprehension among colleagues. When an employee commits suicide, the employer’s first priority in the immediate aftermath must be the practicalities, including speaking to the family, internal and external communications and dealing with the person’s distressed and traumatised colleagues. Inevitably the employer’s attention must then turn to investigating the extent, if any, which workplace issues, especially stress, may have caused or contributed to the employee’s death.

Although the legal decision about the cause of death is one for the coroner, employers can expect to face intense scrutiny in the press and at the inquest and so need to have at least a high level assessment of their exposure at a very early stage. Stress and anxiety at work caused by excessive workloads, harassment or bullying, organisational change or redundancy, for example, can lead to severe depression or exacerbate an existing condition with fatal consequences. Last year, a top City lawyer took his life and, during the inquest into his death, his widow said he felt unsupported at work and was experiencing high stress levels.

The legal framework

As well as adverse press coverage and criticism from their own staff, employers can face a number of legal risks from stressed employees during their lifetime and, in some cases, after their death by their representatives including claims under:

  • health and safety legislation which imposes a duty on all employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of employees and to conduct risk assessments. The employer risks increasingly high fines and individual directors, company secretaries and managers can be held criminally responsible for health and safety breaches;
  • laws relating to negligence for breach of their duty of care to their employees especially for workload stress;
  • the Working Time Regulations 1998 in relation to holidays, working hours and rest breaks;
  • the Equality Act 2010 for disability discrimination and for other forms of discrimination including harassment, bullying or victimisation;
  • the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 for serious and repeated harassment or bullying;
  • the Employment Rights Act 1996 for unfair dismissal and compensation for personal injury;
  • other legislation relating, for example, to corporate manslaughter which imposes criminal penalties if the way a business is run or managed causes a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of the employer’s duty.

Accidents at work causing physical injury can also lead to claims of this kind. In one case, an employee lost their right ear and was disfigured after an industrial accident at work. It was found that there was a breach of the employer’s duty of care. As a result of the injuries, the employee developed depression and subsequently committed suicide. The House of Lords found that the suicide was caused by the employer’s breach and that the suicide was reasonably foreseeable. The relatives were therefore entitled to compensation under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976.

Employers will not be liable if an employee is deemed to commit suicide of their own accord or has a depressive illness that is not caused or exacerbated by the workplace environment. Employers are entitled to expect that employees will be able to cope with the normal pressures of the job.

To be liable for breach of their duty of care to employees, employers must have known or it must have been reasonably foreseeable that the employee would suffer psychiatric injury such as depression which could lead to suicide. For example, if the employee told their employer that they were being bullied or they had an excessive workload, the employer should take positive steps to ensure no damage is caused to the employee’s psychiatric health. Employers should also be mindful of particular roles or departments that may be stressful for employees and document and act on complaints made by employees.

As mentioned, criminal liability may also arise. The Health and Safety at Work Act imposes criminal sanctions on employers, directors, and those in senior or management positions for offences committed under the Act. For the most serious offences, where there is a gross breach of the duty of care, employers can be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 and individuals for the common law offence of manslaughter by gross negligence, although there are yet to be cases arising from employee suicide.

What practical steps can employers take?

While employers cannot prevent employees from taking their own lives, they can take pre-emptive measures to reduce the risk that workplace issues may cause or contribute to the death. If a claim or prosecution arises, employers may be called upon to demonstrate that they have effective systems in place to manage the stress levels of employees and other risks to their health and welfare at work such as harassment or bullying. Practical ways to reduce such risks include:

  • monitor individual workloads and take complaints about excessive workloads seriously. Line managers should take personal responsibility for providing the necessary support;
  • hold sessions for employees to assist them in managing stress levels and maintaining a good work life balance;
  • provide training for all employees to spot stressed colleagues and consider having “buddies” for those particularly at risk;
  • conduct employee surveys to receive “stress feedback” to monitor stress levels of employees;
  • undertake back to work interviews after sickness absence where work-related stress is cited as a reason and ensure that those conducting the interviews are trained to spot and deal with stress in the workplace;
  • offer a counselling or confidential service to enable employees to relay concerns;
  • engage on or offsite occupational health advisers, health physicians or GP services;
  • address the ‘face time’ culture if one exists — employees should not feel pressured to stay in the workplace past working hours;
  • implement or update your stress policy so employees know your organisation takes stress seriously and know where to turn if they feel stressed;
  • make reasonable adjustments for those suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental illness;
  • provide training for employees who are promoted and need skills development for their new role;
  • take steps to ensure that the workplace is free from bullying, discrimination, harassment and victimisation. These types of behaviour can cause stress and psychiatric injury. As well as having dignity at work policies employers should actively practice what they preach and demonstrate to employees that these types of behaviour are unacceptable. To minimise the risk of liability employers should provide diversity and inclusivity training and take grievances of this kind seriously.

If your workplace is affected by a suicide, it is also important not to forget the colleagues of the individual, who may be upset or distressed at the news. Providing onsite counselling services or time off may help colleagues who have suffered the bereavement of a colleague and managers should be alert to the need to be sensitive to these issues.

No HR professional wants to have to deal with the tragedy of a colleague’s suicide especially one which happens in the workplace itself. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in this situation it may be a small consolation to know that there were already effective systems and controls in place and that there was little the organisation could have done to prevent it happening. Having a disaster recovery plan which covers this kind of situation will also enable those dealing with a suicide to take the necessary practical steps required fast and effectively with the minimum of fuss so that the tragedy does not turn into a crisis.

 

For further information please contact Helga Breen Partner, DWF London helga.breen@dwf.co.uk

This article was first published by Thomson Reuters: Governance, Risk and Compliance

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Legal news, views, trends and tools for HR Professionals. Stay ahead. Go further