The Victorian Supreme Court recently awarded former teacher Peter Doulis almost $1.3 million after the judge found he had suffered a mental health breakdown as a result of Werribee Secondary College allocating him classes made up almost entirely of the school’s most challenging students.
The case made headlines around Australia and highlights the growing problem of workplace stress and the responsibilities of employers to provide safe workplaces.
Last year, Safe Work Australia devoted an entire report on workplace stress, they said:
“Work-related mental stress has become a major concern in workplaces in Australia because of the impact on individual employees and the costs associated with the long periods away from work that are typical of these claims.”
The Safe Work Australia report revealed professions such as police officers, prison guards and teachers made the most work-related stress claims.
It perhaps not surprising that many teachers and other professionals have come forward since Peter Doulis’ case was made public to share their own experiences of workplace stress.
But it is important to remember Mr Doulis’ case is an extreme example of workplace stress and such cases are rare.
Not only was Mr Doulis given an unduly heavy workload, but when he complained his employer did nothing. He received no training or support, despite providing medical evidence to his employer that his health was deteriorating. Mr Doulis became deeply depressed and was forced to give up teaching. The Supreme Court found his employer failed in its duty of care to him.
Employers are legally obliged to provide safe workplaces. They must take reasonable steps to protect not only a worker’s physical well-being, but their mental health as well.
Many Australians are now working longer and harder than ever before. In fact, when polled by Lifeline in 2013, more than three quarters of Australians (78 per cent) said work was the biggest cause of stress in their lives.
Thankfully for most, workplace stress is manageable. But the case of Peter Doulis should serve as a warning to all employers that they have legal obligations to their workers and they must ensure workplace stress does not led to damaging consequences.