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Unique judgement - managers guilty of employee’s suicide

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt

In Sweden two managers at a social services centre were found guilty in February of causing an employee’s depression and suicide. The judgement is unique. Never before has an employer been found guilty of causing psychological illness, and regardless of whether it is overturned on appeal this judgement serves as a wake-up call for Swedish employers.

The man was employed as a social worker in a small municipality in Northern Sweden, and dealt with cases involving the care of substance abusers. He had been doing the job for three years - and was very happy with it - when he in the spring of 2009 got a new supervisor with a new leadership style. Things soon turned sour between them. She criticised his work time after time in a way which he felt to be harassment. Towards the end of that year the man approached their head of unit and asked to be moved. Between new year and his suicide in June 2010 he continued to appeal to both his head of unit and the municipality’s head of social services for new job tasks. He asked for “mercy” and offered to take on any work whatsoever. Even his colleagues and his wife approached the two managers on several occasions and begged them to do something about the conflict, because the man was growing increasingly depressed. 

Made redundant

They answered by sending him to see a psychologist and a doctor, and carried out what was meant to be a bullying investigation. This comprised of the head of unit asking the supervisor for her opinion on the matter, and taking into account her description of how badly the man was doing his work. So rather than doing something about his work situation, the managers told him he would be made redundant. On the same day that he and his trade union representative were due to meet the employer to discuss his situation, he took his own life. The Swedish Pensions Agency later concluded his death was caused by a work-related injury.

The people now found guilty of causing his illness and death are the head of unit and the head of social services. The supervisor whom the man felt was his tormentor was not charged. This was because the head of unit and the head of social services were responsible as employers and therefore should, in the words of the Work Environment Act, plan, direct and control the activities in order to create a good working environment and prevent ill health. And in this they failed, according to the Östersund District Court.  

Obliged to intervene

The court says there is no doubt both people were aware of the existing cooperation problems and the fact that the man felt very bad because of this. Therefore they were obliged to interfere. The fact that they facilitated contact between the man and occupational health was not adequate, they were still responsible for the situation in the workplace and for what needed to be done there. They should therefore have carried out a proper investigation and considered whether it was possible to change the working conditions within the unit, but they didn’t even investigate whether it was possible to find him another workplace. 

The court also concluded that the managers told the man he was being made redundant without really looking into whether there were legal reasons for this — the court says there weren’t — and despite the fact they knew about the suicide risk. They were therefore in breach of the Work Environment Act by causing another person’s death, and were given suspended sentences and severe penalty payments. The two managers will most probably appeal. 

The Work Environment Act makes it very clear that employers must “take all necessary measures” in order to prevent psychological illness as well as accidents and physical illness. But the Swedish Work Environment Authority, which stipulates what the act means in more concrete terms in different areas and for different types of risks, has so far not managed to come up with any binding provisions covering how to prevent psychological illness. The authority has only issued so-called general recommendations in this area. This means it has been difficult to use the sanctions which do exist within the Work Environment Act in order to pursue employers who fail to take responsibility for their workers’ psychological health. Perhaps the judgement from the Östersund District Court will be the trigger which gets the preventative work going. Regardless of whether an appeal succeeds or not, this is a real wake-up call for Sweden’s employers.

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