Perfectionist, hard-working employees: dream or liability?

Every employer dreams of having perfectionist, industrious staff. One employer recently experienced the flip side of this when a former employee initiated proceedings against it, claiming payment of her overtime and damages for health problems, which included a miscarriage and a burnout.

What was this all about?

The employee worked as an Executive Assistant from 1 December 2014 to 1 February 2017. On 30 November 2016 she handed in her notice, to take effect on 31 January 2017. Just before her employment ended, she reported sick, and then joined a new employer on 1 February 2017. On 15 March 2017 she asked her former employer to, among other things, pay her overtime. She also held the employer liable for damages due to her health problems. The employer refused to meet this request so the employee then initiated proceedings.

In proceedings before the subdistrict court, the employee asserted that the employer’s targets were so high that its employees were basically forced to work overtime to meet them. Due to the enormous work pressure and demanding atmosphere, she felt compelled to report sick in late 2016 and to hand in her notice. She asserted that the heavy workload had caused her to suffer a miscarriage, severe neck and shoulder complaints and a burnout, and that she remained unfit for work. She requested a declaratory decision to the effect that her former employer:

  1. owed her approximately EUR 95,000 in gross salary due to systematic and substantial overtime; and
  2. was liable for the economic and non-economic damage she had suffered due to the health problems, with an order for the employer to pay damages.

The subdistrict court

No compensation for overtime

The subdistrict court held that it had not been proven that the employer had given explicit instructions to work overtime. Nor had the employer given implicit instructions to that effect. The subdistrict court concluded that it was up to the employee to have planned her work properly in order to prevent overtime. Given her position, this was to be expected of her.

The court held that if systematic overtime could not have been prevented, it would have been up to the employee to take this up with her employer in express terms and in good time.

Former employer not liable

The subdistrict court found that the employee had not sufficiently substantiated her assertion that her physical and mental problems had been caused by her job. Moreover, the employee had failed to make a plausible case that the working conditions at the employer were, according to objective standards, psychologically burdensome and had been caused by the employer, who knew or should have known that the work had become overwhelming or impossible for her to do.

Briefly put, all the employee’s claims were dismissed.

Conclusion

This judgment illustrates the fact that employees have a high degree of responsibility for their own work planning in order to prevent overtime. They must also let it be known, in good time, if they develop health problems that may be related to their work or overtime. Nonetheless, in order to prevent health problems and discussions after the event, we advise employers to keep an eye out for employees who are always available even when they are not asked or expected to be.

Fleur van Lieshout (fvl@clintlegal.com / +31 20 820 0330)