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Back to Basics: How to Deal with Stress in the Workplace?

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Stress in the workplace is a common issue and one which it is important to manage appropriately. There has been an increasing focus in recent years on mental wellbeing within the workplace, and there are good reasons why this should be so.  One in four people will experience a mental health condition at some stage in their lives.

A key issue for business is the financial impact of mental ill-health and work-related stress, which can include loss of productivity and the cost of paying someone who is off sick, as well as costs related to making arrangements for replacement staff, absence administration costs, increased insurance costs, high staff turnover and litigation or legal costs if the employee raises a grievance or claim about the issues which have led to their stress or due to a failure to deal with these issues.

In March 2019, a report published by the Health & Safety Executive showed that stress in the workplace costs over £5 billion a year to employers across the UK, and over 602,000 workers suffered from new or ongoing work-related stress in 2018/19. This has resulted in 12.8 million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the same time frame.

As well as the financial impact of stress on business there is of course also the human cost. Stress can have a significant negative effect on employee wellbeing. Employees who are stressed may be less effective, and absence or workload issues may put pressure on other staff and cause ‘knock on’ stress. There may be an effect on relationships between staff and an impact on productivity. This can also affect morale within the business and increase staff turnover. While there may be personal issues which are causing stress to individual employees, employees suffering from stress can be an indicator of issues within the business which may need to be addressed.

What causes stress in the workplace?

The Health and Safety Executive define stress as the ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. There are a number of factors which can cause stress to employees in the workplace, including:

  • Unmanageable workload or work demands
  • Poorly defined roles and responsibilities, lack of control or objectives
  • Poor work/life balance
  • Poor relationships, especially with colleagues or managers
  • Job insecurity and organisational change
  • Poor handling of personal issues or grievances

Can stress be considered a disability?

Stress is not an illness in itself, and while it might cause a person to be unwell, this does not necessarily mean they have a disability under the Equality Act 2010. In the case of J v DLA Piper, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) drew a distinction between symptoms of low mood and anxiety caused by clinical depression and those that derived from a ‘medicalisation of work problems’ or ‘adverse life events’. While the former was likely to be a disability, the latter was not. However, employees suffering from stress may also have a physical or mental health condition which is a disability and which is worsened by stress.

In other cases, the EAT stated that a tribunal is not bound to find that stress is a mental impairment for the purposes of a disability in cases of workplace stress. Any medical evidence must be considered with great care, as must any evidence of adverse effect over and above an unwillingness to return to work until an issue is resolved to the employee’s satisfaction. Ultimately whether an employee’s stress is considered a mental impairment capable of being a disability will be a question for the employment tribunal.     

Health & Safety

However, even if stress is not a disability, it can still have a significant effect on the mental wellbeing of employees and be a major cause of absence. Employers have a legal duty to ensure the safety of their employees. The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work. The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to make an assessment of workplace health and safety risks, which includes those arising from stress. This will involve identifying any hazards which might cause stress, evaluating these and how they might be addressed or avoided, and regularly reviewing the assessment.

Employers also have implied contractual duties to employees, as well as common law duties in terms of protecting health and safety. Failure to deal with stress which results in psychiatric injury to the employee can potentially result in a personal injury claim. Where an employer is on notice that an employee is suffering from stress, the risk of injury is more foreseeable and it is advisable to take steps to address this.

What can be done to address stress in the workplace?

As well as taking steps to ensure risk assessments are carried out which account for workplace stress, there are a number of steps employers can take to try and reduce stress and foster positive mental health within the workplace. These include:

  • Creating an atmosphere where people can talk about stress and mental health without stigma. This could be within appraisals, return to work interviews or regular 1-21 or work planning sessions where employees might feel more comfortable rather than a specific meeting about health;
  • Ensure support is provided for those who are known to be suffering from stress or mental health issues and consider referral to Occupational Health;
  • Make it known to employees if there are any services available to them such as an Employee Assistance Program, helplines, employee counselling and so on;
  • Have policies and procedures in place regarding stress in the workplace;
  • Consider training for staff and management on how to recognise and deal with stress, and particularly to ensure managers know how to provide appropriate support.                                                                    
  • Consider appointing a ‘Mental Health Champion’ or another appointed person that employees can go to if they would feel uncomfortable approaching their line manager.

There are a number of resources available online which provide guidance on dealing with stress in the workplace, including an ACAS Guide and on the Health and Safety Executive website.

Contact our Employment Solicitors

For advice on this or other employment related issues, please contact our employment specialists at Miller Samuel Hill Brown by calling 0141 221 1919 or filling out our online enquiry form.

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