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Council worker awarded over $1 million in damages for psychological injury

03 February 2022

In a recent Queensland Supreme Court decision, the plaintiff Paul Ackers, was awarded $1.1 million in damages from Cairns Regional Council after suffering psychological injury.

This injury came on after Mr Ackers found himself working an extra 12 hours per week due to a decrease in staff, holding Mr Ackers responsible for errors in the payroll unit and a "flawed and unfair" performance management plan.

Loss of staff

Paul Ackers commenced his employment as the payroll supervisor at the Cairns Regional Council on 22 September 2014, where his mandates were to "fix the staff and fix the system." As Ackers went about implementing new processes, he encountered resistance from some staff members and three staff members took indefinite sick leave, leaving the unit understaffed. 

Despite asking his superiors on numerous occasions for assistance and additional skilled staff, Mr Ackers was left to continue the operation of his unit without assistance. It was at this stage that Mr Ackers was working almost an additional two days of work per week, with two separate occasions known to the Council of Mr Ackers working overnight.

Deterioration of mental state

In addition to workload issues, Mr Ackers was the subject of a Union complaint. At this point, several staff members began noticing changes in the personality of Mr Ackers.  These signs became so severe that Mr Ackers was stood down on medical grounds for two days on 1 July 2015.

On the 9th July, four days after Mr Ackers had been back to work from medical leave, Mr Ackers, in tears, disclosed his depression and medication to his supervisor and once again asked for additional staff.

Performance management 

While Mr Ackers was on sick leave, two members of the financial team had stepped in to assist the team with their duties and found several errors. Unbeknownst to Mr Ackers, an audit was then conducted culminating in a report "Findings from Payroll Review Document." 

This document exposed apparent errors and oversights in the payroll unit.  While many of which were not made by Mr Ackers personally, Mr Ackers was still placed on a Performance Management Plan.

After a meeting on 23 September 2015, Mr Ackers was provided with a letter to attend a doctor in regards to his mental state. On 24 September 2015, Mr Ackers was provided with a medical certificate declaring him unfit for work. He has not returned to work since.

Court Findings

The Court found that in the Council's continued pursuit of their unsubstantiated Performance Management Plan, after an accumulation of signs exhibiting psychological distress, the Council had breached their duty of care. 

Takeaway for employers

While employers are entitled to assume normal fortitude on the part of an employee, a greater degree of care may be required when an employer imposes an abnormally stressful workload or where an employee is exhibiting signs of psychological stress.

We would like to acknowledge the contribution of Brent Woolf (Law Clerk) to this article. 

If you require further information or have any queries in relation to this legal update, please contact Hamish Broadbent or Meenakashi Jansen.

Further Reading