French law does not yet recognise burnout as an occupational illness, yet employers would be wrong in thinking they have no liability when it comes to exhaustion, mental fatigue or stress amongst their employees. The ultimate appeal court (Cour de cassation), in a decision handed down on December 6, 2017, has just found against a company for breach of obligation for preventing of psychosocial harm.
Let’s look back at this textbook case:
An avalanche of instances of depression and resignations…
In the beginning, employees who were victims of psychological pressure, disrespect, angry outbursts from their line manager, decided to go to the employment tribunal. Among these employees, some had already fled the company after a period of sick leave. These seven employees did not appear before the employment tribunal empty handed. In fact, a report by the labor inspectorate gave a picture of employees “confronted with situations of suffering at work and a serious deterioration of their working conditions induced by methods management by fear.”
The company was then ordered to pay several thousand Euros to each employee, for breach of its obligation to prevent psychosocial risks.
It was not possible to establish moral harassment
At the same time, one employee, probably feeling that the compensation for their loss was insufficient, decided to file a criminal complaint against the manager for moral harassment. However, the recognition that methods are particularly authoritarian and even odious is not enough to prove moral harassment.
The manager, on acquittal, then decided to counter-attack, relying on the authority of res judicata in the civil action.
Pointing the finger at breaches of the obligation of prevention
The Cour de Cassation confirmed its initial decision. The fact is that the manager was found not guilty of moral harassment and did not breach of his obligation of prevention. This fault, which is distinct from harassment, is much easier to establish: it showed that employees are suffering in the workplace and that their employer is not able to relieve this.
The action here aims at condemning a tyrannical management approach. However, a breach of the obligation to prevent psychosocial risks could just as easily be held against employers who are negligent, stressed or just insensitive to the psychological suffering of their employees. The prevention of psychosocial risks within the company is a legal obligation. This decision from the Cour de Cassation reminds us of this. It also increases the pressure on employers, shows that action should be taken to relieve suffering at work, and if action is not taken, an employer can be taken to court.
Professional solutions do exist
The case described above proves that wellness at the workplace is a real issue for company managers. This is why Asinta French Partner Gerep offers its clients an innovative programme of prevention called GPS – Gerep Prevention State of Health – which is unique in France and aimed at companies, their employees and family members.
Many thanks to our French Partner Gerep for providing this article.