By JOSIE CLARKE
A former probation officer has been awarded around $1 million compensation after proving that job stress cost him his mental and physical health.
Christopher John Gilbert sued the Department of Corrections for $900,000 for breaching his employment contract and forcing him to retire on stress-related medical grounds in 1996 at the age of 51.
He claimed that the department overloaded him with work during a 21-year career dealing mainly with sex offenders and violent criminals.
In a landmark decision, the Employment Court agreed.
Yesterday, Judge Graeme Colgan awarded Mr Gilbert 14 years' salary at about $40,000 a year, $75,000 in damages for humiliation and distress, $50,000 in punitive damages, $50,000 for loss of employability, plus medical expenses and legal costs.
The compensation for stress is the highest awarded in New Zealand, and sets a precedent for people in demanding jobs.
Mr Gilbert said yesterday that the job cost him his mental and physical health, but he felt a "quiet pleasure at vindication."
He was working at the Otahuhu office when he started suffering chest pains, which were later diagnosed as stress-related. He was refused special leave when his sick-leave entitlement ran out and was told he would have to resume a full workload as soon as he returned to work.
He had since undergone major heart surgery and had spent most of his retirement too exhausted to leave his Papatoetoe home and living on an invalid's benefit.
"I was exhausted and placed in a hopeless position."
He said that the payout would relieve his financial stress, but he warned people not to think they could sue "because they get a tension headache."
The emotional and financial cost of taking the department to court had been daunting, "but if I didn't they would have gotten away with doing something that was wrong and unjust. If you don't make a stand, in effect you condone it."
His lawyer, Catherine Stewart, said the case was about job stress and burnout.
It succeeded because Mr Gilbert's stress was excessive and avoidable, she said. A number of his colleagues had made numerous complaints about their working conditions and the court accepted that the department knew it was harming its staff.
"The critical factor is that those employees repeatedly drew the stress they were suffering to the attention of the department, but the department didn't respond adequately."
She did not know if other employees planned court action.
Mr Gilbert's injuries were not covered by ACC legislation because they were stress-related and did not fall under the definition of personal injury.
A Corrections spokeswoman, Angela Bensemann, said the department would review the decision before deciding whether to take further action.
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