Work-related stress and significant workloads are quite common in the professional environment. But how should an employer deal with the repeated sickness leaves of an employee due to overwork? It could be tempting to take the easy way out and dismiss the employee.

As a general principle, French employment law prohibits dismissals based on an employee’s health and illness, such dismissals being deemed null and void. However, the decisions of the French courts have authorised dismissals based on the disruption of the company’s business resulting from the employee’s long-term absence and the need to proceed with his permanent replacement. Nevertheless, these decisions have also specified that the employer may not legitimately dismiss an employee in cases where the employee’s absence is a result of failure by the employer to comply with its own obligations.

In the present case, an employee was dismissed due to long and repeated absences which resulted in a disruption of the business. The employee lodged a claim before the court, claiming that her sickness leaves were caused by a heavy workload, resulting in permanent and continued stress, and therefore in burn-out and deterioration of her health condition. The lower courts, including the Court of Appeals, dismissed the claim on the grounds that the employee had never complained about her situation, either to the occupational health services or to the employer itself.

The French Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, holding that the employee’s absences resulted from the employer’s breach of his duty of care. The employer could not escape liability on the basis that it was unaware of the situation of the employee, such argument being irrelevant.

In other words, the employer should have been aware of the reasons for the employee’s absences, and it was not in a position to allege disruptions in the company’s business which were the consequence of absences which the employer had itself caused by failing to detect an overload situation resulting in the deterioration of the employee’s health, or failing to try to resolve it.

This decision is to be put in perspective with a previous decision of the Supreme Court in which the Court rendered a similar decision in a case where the employee dismissed was absent due to moral harassment.

In conclusion, rather than dismissing the employee suffering a burn-out, employers should consider the reasons for the burn-out, and implement corrective actions so that the situation improves.

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