A bank manager who tried to kill himself rather than face a meeting to discuss his branch's performance has won a three-year court battle that could dramatically affect how workplaces treat their staff.
The man's lawyers said yesterday the Federal Court's decision would restore fairness to compensation laws by making employers take greater responsibility for psychological injuries.
Mark Reeve managed the Commonwealth Bank branch in the Perth suburb of Mt Hawthorn for about a year before his nervous breakdown, which the bank agreed was linked to his work.
In the weeks before his suicide attempts, a restructure had moved two high-performing staff out of his office, and moved his branch under another area manager's control.
The branch then suffered a drop in lending and customer-survey results, which Mr Reeve had to report via teleconference to 15 to 17 other branch managers as well as his new boss, whom Mr Reeve did not yet know personally.
Mr Reeve ''felt upset and humiliated'' by what he believed was his manager's criticism of him during the phone call.
Later that day, he received new customer-survey results that showed his branch had failed to improve its scores.
Three days later, on July 21, 2008, the morning of the next teleconference, he tried three times to suffocate himself in his car.
A psychologist later reported, ''Mark's experience was one of intense humiliation and shaming in the [phone] meeting … Consequently, he could not face the idea that he was expected to repeat a similar scenario the following week.''
The bank initially accepted liability and agreed to compensate Mr Reeve. However, it later withdrew its support, arguing its workplace practices represented ''reasonable administrative action'', which would have excluded it from responsibility for causing the illness.
The full Federal Court ruled yesterday against the bank’s appeal, saying Mr Reeve’s illness was caused by ‘‘management actions’’.
Crucial to its decision was the fact that Mr Reeve was judged by the results of feedback surveys, which only recorded positive results when customers gave a score of nine or 10 out of 10. The judges said the surveys didn't measure Mr Reeve's individual performance.
Slater & Gordon, the legal firm that represented Mr Reeve, said it was disappointed the bank had taken its employee to court.
The head of the firm's federal workers' compensation group, Rachael James, said, ''Our client's life has obviously not been the same since the incident at work, but he's pleased that it's now over.''
Ms James said employers often used the ''administrative action'' clause to escape liability for mental illnesses, without having tried to address the individual's circumstances.
''What this will mean is we won't see this broad-brush approach that employers and insurers have taken with respect to psychological conditions.''
Mr Reeve will now be paid for his medical expenses and his time off work since his breakdown in July 2008.
The Commonwealth Bank could not be contacted last night.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling SANE Helpline 1800 18 7263; Lifeline 131 114; Salvo Crisis Line - 9331 2000; beyondblue 1300 22 46 36.