The Health & Safety Executive (“HSE”) estimates that in the UK about half a million people experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill, up to 5 million people in the UK feel “very” or “extremely” stressed by their work, and a total of 12.8 million days were lost to stress, anxiety and depression in 2004/2005.  It is widely accepted that stress, and the absences which result from it, cause enormous problems for employers across the UK.  Employers are frequently faced with employees who produce sick notes citing stress, anxiety or depression as being the reason for absence, and often this can spiral into a long period of absence and potentially even long term disability.  Taking preventative steps to prevent the stress arising in the first place must therefore be a sensible precaution for employers.

In August 2003 the HSE served its first improvement notice on a British employer to require it to control workplace stress. According to reports, the HSE investigated West Dorset General Hospitals NHS trust after staff complained of bullying and unbearable hours.  Inspectors found that management did not have procedures in place to assess the risk of stress, which was a failure to fulfil their duty of care towards their employees.  In particular, they had failed to investigate or carry out any risk assessments following complaints by staff that they were suffering from unacceptable levels of stress at work.

An HSE project setting down management standards to deal with stress was formally launched in 2004.  “Management standards” are intended to develop standards of good management practice and provide a yardstick against which employers can gauge their performance in tackling a range of the key causes of work related stress.  The management standards involve looking at the following primary causes of stress including :

  • Demands – such as workload, work patterns and the work environment,
  • Control – such as how much say the employee has over the work that he does,
  • Support – what support mechanisms are in place within the organisation, line management and colleagues?,
  • Relationships – such as promoting positive working to avoid conflict and deal with unacceptable behaviour,
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation,
  • Change – such as how organisational change is managed and communicated in the organisation.

Employers already have duties under the health and safety legislation to carry out risk assessments which should include assessments as to current levels of stress.  However, the management standards are intended to help and encourage employers to reach these standards. 

Stress related absences are becoming an increasing problem for employers, not just because of the increased focus which stress is being given by the HSE, but also because the new definition of “disability” under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (“DDA”) removes the need for a mental impairment to be clinically well recognised.  This is expected to increase the number of employees with stress, anxiety or depression who could qualify under the protection of the DDA.  It is also possible that a claim for personal injury could be brought against an employer as a result of psychiatric injury caused by stress, particularly if the cause of the stress was reasonably foreseeable to the employer.

So what should employers be doing to try to prevent stress occurring in the workplace?  The HSE website (www.hse.gov.uk) provides helpful guidance on this, but employers should consider conducting risk assessments on employees who they have reason to believe may be engaged in particularly stressful jobs, including looking at the demands of the job being carried out by an employee.  Factors which employers may want to consider include: What is the nature and extent of the work being done by the employee?  Is the employee’s workload greater than is normal for the kind of job he performs? Is the employee’s work particularly emotionally or intellectually demanding? Are the demands made on the employee unreasonable compared to the demands of others in comparable jobs?  Are there signs that others doing the same job are suffering harmful levels of stress?  Is there an abnormal level of sickness absenteeism in the employee’s job or department?  Employers should also consider whether there are any signs from the employee of impending harm to health?  Whether the employee has a particular problem or vulnerability?  Whether the employee has already suffered from stress at work?  Whether there have recently been prolonged or frequent absences that are uncharacteristic for that employee?

Employers should also ensure that they deal properly with any allegations made by the workforce that they are finding their workloads too heavy, their hours of work too long, or if allegations are made about bullying.  Where allegations are made, employers should investigate the allegations seriously and take appropriate steps.  Where necessary, they should consider offering counselling or employing a work place councillor to help to address the problem.

Failing to address stress issues in the workplace could not only give rise to claims for breach of contract, unfair dismissal and (potentially) disability discrimination, but could also result in the HSE getting involved and serving an improvement notice on the employer.  That is exactly the sort of publicity most employers will be keen to avoid.

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