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Mental Health and Stress in the Workplace

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Research has consistently shown that employee stress levels have risen in line with the demands of the twenty-first century workplace.

The CIPD publish a survey on health and wellbeing at work, and reported in 2019 that mental ill health was increasingly prevalent as a cause of both short and long-term illness and remained one of the most common causes of long-term absence. They also reported a rising culture of presenteeism (people coming to work when unwell) which is harmful and which could be masking more deep-seated organisational issues that could be undermining health and wellbeing at work, such as unmanageable workloads (identified as by far the greatest cause of stress). The report noted that while employers can introduce exemplary wellbeing policies and make serious investment in employee health, these would not have a real impact unless people were managed well, with there being a supportive and inclusive culture and committed leadership. Unsurprisingly, the 2021 report found that the Covid-19 pandemic was a significant additional cause of stress and employers were reporting increasing concern for employee wellbeing as a result, although the report also indicated this has resulted in employers taking more steps to support employee health and wellbeing.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data shows that the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18 was 595,000 (44% of all work-related illnesses). The HSE also found that the total number of working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 15.4 million in 2017/18, an average of 25.8 days per case. (31 October 2018) This shows that there is a significant potential impact and taking steps to support mental health in the workplace has benefits not only for employees personally but for the business and productivity.

Stress and mental health

While stress is a reaction or a response and will not normally amount to an illness itself, it may result in or be a trigger for illness, or exacerbate an existing health condition. The effects of stress may manifest themselves in both mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease. If an employee has an existing mental health condition, suffering from excessive stress could result in a deterioration in health. Employees with existing conditions may be covered by the disability element of the Equality Act 2010, and therefore protected from discrimination and entitled to reasonable adjustments, but an employer also has a broad duty to all employees.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. In particular, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (SI 1999/3242) (MHSW Regulations) impose a duty to carry out risk assessments of the risks employees are exposed to at work. This includes risks to mental health as well as physical health.  This also requires taking steps to prevent identified risks.

It can be difficult to identify staff who are under stress, particularly when an employer might not be aware of factors external to the workplace that might be causing or compounding stress (such as relationship breakdown, financial worries or bereavement).. If an employee exhibits changes in work performance such as reduced output, decreased or inconsistent performance or uncharacteristic errors, it is often worth exploring whether there is underlying stress or health issues which may be affecting them. Other indicators of potential stress include changes in work habits such as working longer hours or arriving late frequently, or changes in behaviour or personality such as becoming more withdrawn, reducing social contact, crying or becoming upset, being irritable or quick to anger, exhibiting aggressive behaviour or over-reacting to problems.

Managing Stress in the Workplace

The Acas Guide on Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace  notes some of the most common workplace causes of mental ill health are as follows: :

  • Unmanageable workloads or demands
  • Poorly defined job roles and responsibilities
  • Lack of control over work
  • Unhealthy work-life balance
  • Poor relationships with management or colleagues
  • Organisational change or job insecurity
  • Lack of variety in work
  • Limited career progression opportunities.

Generally these issues can be addressed through appropriate management, such as providing support and training, ensuring job roles are well defined and employees have clear and achievable objectives, investigating and appropriately addressing any complaints, ensuring staff are able to and do use break and holiday entitlements and are not working excessive hours, discouraging presenteeism, consulting with staff on changes and having regular appraisals and discussions about staff development and progression. Where an employee is suffering from stress or mental ill health, steps may include referring them for occupational health review or other support, carrying out a stress risk assessment or referral to an Employee Assistance Program where available. There are also a range of possible adjustments which could assist, such as flexible working, changes in role, changes to start and finish times, allowing home working, or delegating some tasks to other staff, although what is helpful for any given employee should be considered individually.

In October 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions, in co-ordination with the Department of Health, published Thriving at work: the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers (Stevenson/Farmer Review). Written by Paul Farmer (chief executive of Mind) and Dennis Stevenson (former HBOS chair).It proposed six "mental health core standards" that could be implemented across all workplaces at little or no cost. These are:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan.This should promote good mental health for all employees and outline the support available for those who may need it.
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees.This should be done by making information, tools and support accessible.
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.During the recruitment process and at regular         intervals throughout employment, appropriate workplace adjustments should be        offered to employees who need them. Removing the stigma surrounding mental health  

            and discussing it in the workplace can also assist employees.

  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development.
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and All employees should have regular conversations about their health with      their line manager, supervisor or organisational leader who should, in turn, be trained           in effective management practices.
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.Employers need to talk to employees and identify and understand risk factors. This might be done in team meetings, one to one meetings or more general information catch ups, or by encouraging openness and discussion of issues which are causing stress.

An employer that understands mental health is better able to support and encourage staff to be open about their mental health. Steps towards this include identifying causes of mental ill health in the workplace, seeking to remove stigma associated with mental health and being aware of legal obligations to staff. Employers can also consider training managers or, depending on resources, allocating a smaller number of managers to be mental health champions. Seeking to implement steps such as those above, promote a culture of support and good management which takes workplace mental health seriously can not only reduce employee absence, but improve wellbeing, engagement and productivity which is beneficial for employee and employer alike. This is perhaps even more important in light of the additional stresses caused during the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting changes in working practices for many employees.


ACAS Guide: Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace

Stevenson/Farmer Review: Click here to download

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