Court awards compensation to employee for work-related stress

22 April 2021

The Court has determined an employee’s aortic dissection and hypertensions, were a result of ongoing work related stress. As such, the Court awarded compensation to the employee for loss of income weekly benefits and related medical expenses.

In issue

  • The main issue in this case is whether emotional stress from the Applicant’s employment caused the Applicant to suffer an aortic dissection (heart condition), and whether the employment was also a significant contributing cause to the heart condition.

The background

In February 2016, the Applicant in this matter commenced their employment with Accolade Wines Australia (AWA) as a Winery System Manager. The Applicant demonstrated prior experience in the senior management areas of information technology, project management and automation. It is these skills which prompted AWA to employ the Applicant as Winery System Manager, to act as a conduit to settle the on-going tensions between the Information Technology Department and the Operations Department at the company.

In the first six months of the Applicant’s employment, it became apparent that the creation of his role served to the contrary of its objective, and rather increased tensions between the two departments. A project was assigned to the plaintiff to integrate a newly supported software into the existing system. However, there was resistance from the departments. This resulted in an unsuccessful project and commencement of the Applicant’s emotional stress.

Further, the Applicant was assigned additional projects to his current work, forcing his role to become complex and as a consequent, increase his stress with trying to handle multiple projects. The Applicant sought medical attention from his treating doctor, as he noted a reduction in sleep, exhaustion and emotional stress experienced from work. The Applicant was advised to take some days off. Shortly after, the Applicant was certified fit to return to work, but would be required to return for review two weeks later. The plaintiff did not return for any further consultation’s due to his workload, and subsequently experienced his aortic dissection.

In December 2020, the Applicant sought his claim be heard and determined in the South Australian Employment Court.

The decision at trial

Deputy President Judge Rossi established an evaluative judgement in support of the Applicant. In Judge Rossi’s determination, expert medical opinions which commented on the Applicant’s medical history and their understanding of aortic dissection were heavily considered.

Having relied on the principle established in South Australia v Roberts1, and despite conclusive evidence that the Applicant’s condition was affected by other related factors, the Court determined that work-related emotional stress, stemming from the date of the Applicant’s employment, until the aortic dissection, was the main contributing cause.

As such, the Court found the plaintiff was compensable for his condition which arose out of work and was entitled to weekly payments and payment of medical expenses reasonably incurred because of the aortic dissection.

Implications for you

This case serves as an important reminder to employers that there needs to be a reasonable assignment of work to their employee’s and it may be necessary to discuss workloads on a regular basis.

Considering the above, it is apparent that the Applicant was exposed to large amounts of work, with the assumption that, given his experience, he would be able to handle it. Notwithstanding an employee’s level of experience, it is essential for employers or managers to have ongoing check ins with their employees to ensure their work is not exacerbating any underlying or creating potential health concerns.

Employers need to mindful of civil claims in this regard, but also that overworking employees may give rise to a complaint to the relevant WHS regulator which triggers an investigation.

Cremasco v Accolade Wines Australia Limited [2021] SAET 64

[1] South Australia v Roberts [2018] SASCFC 25; (2018) 130 SASR 274.

Dr Laura Sowden
Anna Ly
James Rouhana

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