Donna Reynolds: Handling the heartbreak of dismissal

I recently met a man deeply upset at being made redundant after 23 years' service with his employer, to advise on the terms and effect of a settlement agreement. He told me he had dedicated almost all his working life to this one company.

Signing a legal agreement can be stressful
Signing a legal agreement can be stressful

He had turned down opportunities to earn more money elsewhere only to find he now had to work harder and longer, for the same pay, after each ‘efficiency drive’. He regularly arrived home from work long after his children were in bed and he’d missed more parents’ evenings and nativity plays than he dared to admit. He and his wife had drifted apart, only reacquainting themselves during his two-week summer (wifi being a prerequisite for any hotel to check emails). He clearly felt he had given his employer not just his best, but the best of him. He was financially committed and emotionally invested.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that the employer/employee relationship is like a marriage. Both are largely based on the implied principle of mutual trust and confidence. In light of the way discrimination law has developed, the wedding vows “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, and in sickness and in health” are perhaps more apt in describing the relationship or, at least, the expectations, of either or both the employee and employer (perhaps even the Employment Tribunal). This man, having stood by his employer, “for better, for worse”, clearly expected his employer to do the same.

Having listened to many employers give their take on the concept of expectations in the employer/employee relationship, the vast majority believe the days of ‘a day’s pay for a day’s work’ are long gone. This raises the question, what are employers really responsible for?

Take for instance an employee suffering from stress caused by one or more factors outside work.While it is difficult to determine whether employees suffering from stress qualify for protection under the Equality Act 2010, where they do, employers have been playing their part for some time by complying with equality legislation, albeit with varying degrees of success.

HSE guidance states that employers don’t have to do anything about stress outside work but it would be good if they did. It is no secret that many employers are not comfortable having difficult conversations with their employees – “You’ve made a few mistakes at work recently, is everything okay at home?” or “I’m sorry to hear that you’ve split up from your wife, is there anything we can do?” However, these conversations may help avoid a long-term absence or an expensive claim for, say, discrimination arising from disability because the employee was dismissed for their long-term absence which was in fact a dismissal for having taken a period of disability-related sickness.

Management intervention in cases of work-related stress is often required if liability is to be avoided for claims of, among others, unfair dismissal, discrimination and negligence. An employer cannot be expected to get to the root cause of problems outside work (let alone address them) in the same way it can with events at work, but by remembering employees are employed “in sickness and in health” at the very least, some consideration can be given to the impact personal factors may be having on the employer/employee relationship, and what can be done to help, before the thorny issue of divorce needs to be raised.

Donna Reynolds is an employment partner with CCW Business Lawyers