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 6 December 2017, has just found against a company for breach of the obligation of prevention of psychosocial risks. 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 labour inspectorate gave a picture of employees “confronted with situations of suffering at work and a serious deterioration of their working conditions induced by methods of 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
Unsuccessful. The Cour de Cassation confirmed its initial decision. The fact is that the manager was found not guilty of moral harassment does not cast a doubt on any breach of his obligation of prevention. This fault, which is distinct from harassment, is much easier to establish: it suffices to show 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 and shows that the expectation that positive action be taken against suffering at work, can now be expressed in the courts.
Professional solutions do exist
The case described above proves that wellness at the workplace is a real issue for company managers. This is why 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 members of their family.