On 26 October, the Paris Court of Appeal held that an employer had been grossly negligent when one of its employees had a heart attack as a result of his excessive workload.   

The employee in question was an editor and had been working over 70 hours a week as a result of having to pick up (in addition to his own responsibilities) the work of a freelance journalist who had left the company and not been replaced.  Upon leaving a meeting with his employer, the overworked editor had a heart attack and was able in Court to show that this was the result of “inexcusable fault” or gross negligence on the part of his employer. 

Evidence presented to the Court showed that over the six month period leading up to his heart attack, the employee in question was carrying out almost 50% more work than usual.  His fellow employees also provided statements claiming they too were put under pressure to hit “unachievable targets” and that there was a culture at the company of being overworked. 

The Court of Appeal was unconvinced by the employer’s argument that the editor had not actually been asked to pick up the work of the freelance journalist who left but had done so voluntarily because he thought it necessary.  It focused instead on the fact that the claimant was overworked and that his employer should have prevented this.    How the situation had come about in the first place was less important than the obligation on the employer to address it.

The Court said that it understood the commercial pressures that led the employer to set ambitious targets and increasing workloads, but nonetheless that it should have paid closer attention to the additional burden that this inevitably put on its staff.  In particular, the Court noted that employees in positions of responsibility, such as the claimant, would have found it difficult not to take on the additional work even if they thought this was too much for them.  Their sense of professional obligation might leave them with little choice.  The Court said that it did not matter that other employees had not reacted in the same way when their workload was increased.  The Judge explained that “the duty of an employer to ensure the health and safety of its employees is an overarching duty and one which applies to all employees, regardless of whether or not they react differently to the pressures which are put on them”. 

Last year the French Supreme Court confirmed that “health and safety rights and the right to take breaks are constitutional rights” and this decision clearly shows that the French Courts have decided to take action against employers that turn a blind eye to the problems which can arise when employees are overworked.  Indeed, the Judge urged all employers not to “ignore or disregard medical data which shows the tragic consequences which can sometimes be brought about by work-related stress.”    It is not enough to rely on the employee’s own judgment as to what workload he can tolerate – he may be wrong, as here, or feel that has no choice.  Instead the employer must act proactively to head off the obvious risks to staff caused by persistent over-working.