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Employer's guide to workplace related stress

28 April 2005
Employer's guide to workplace related stress

Three in every five workers (58%) now complain of being stressed at work, an increase of two per cent from 2002, according to latest TUC figures.

The most common causes in the hospitality and catering sectors are long hours and shift work.

Although employers are concerned about becoming involved in litigation, work-related stress can have other serious business and financial implications.

The Health & Safety Executive estimates that about 6.5 million working days are lost each year because of stress-related illnesses, at a cost to employers of £570m.

What is stress?
Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure, which may be caused by work or financial and domestic worries.

On its own, stress is not an illness, but it can cause ill health if it is prolonged or intense. It can result in minor physical illnesses such as stomach upsets and can cause psychological problems such as anxiety.

In more serious cases it can result in clinically recognised conditions such as depression.

Who is at risk?
Everybody is vulnerable to stress and although some people work well under pressure this does not mean that excessive pressure is a good thing.

There are a number of work-related "stressors" including:

  • an excessive workload
  • boring or repetitive work
  • unrealistic expectations of the employee
  • poor communication
  • a culture of blame in the organisation.

Taking action to alleviate these problems should benefit both employers and employees.

Why may employers be liable for work-related stress?
Employers have a duty of care to keep their employees safe from harm and also have specific statutory duties to ensure the health and safety at work of their employees as provided for by legislation.

Accordingly, employers must provide a safe place of work, proper machinery and equipment, a safe system of work and competent staff to discharge these duties.

The employer must act with "reasonable care", which includes assessing the possibility of injury or risk and taking preventative measures to avoid such risks.

In order to pursue a successful claim for stress the employee must establish not only a breach of the duty of care by the employer, but must also show that the breach resulted in a psychological or psychiatric injury and that there is a link between the breach of duty and the injury.

Finally, the employee must show that the injury was reasonably foreseeable.

What can employers do to prevent work related stress?
There are many steps an employer can take:

  • Ensure employees are well suited to the job they carry out
  • Where necessary provide appropriate training
  • Change the way jobs are carried out
  • Increase the variety of tasks
  • Prioritise tasks and cut out unnecessary work
  • Improve communication
  • Create a positive and supportive atmosphere where people feel comfortable about disclosing any work problems they may have
  • Ensure employees avoid working excessively long hours

What does this mean in practice?
Court decisions in work-related stress casse make it clear that no occupations are inherently risky and likely to cause mental illness. Employers are entitled to assume that an employee can withstand the normal pressures of the job. Workplace-related stress claims will only succeed when mental injury was reasonably foreseeable.

Forseeability depends upon what the employer knows or ought reasonably to know about the individual employee. However, the employer is generally entitled to take what he is told by his employee at face value.

Employers should still ask themselves:

  • Is an individual's workload much higher than is normal for the job?
  • Is the job is particularly intellectually or emotionally demanding for the employee in question?
  • Are unreasonable demands being made of a particular employee?

Any employer who offers a confidential advice or counselling service is unlikely to be found in breach of his duty of care unless the employee has an excessive workload and the risk of psychiatric injury is clear.

So should I still be concerned about work-related stress?
Yes. In April 2000 the same court upheld a finding of liability against the Post Office for the stress-related illness suffered by an employee, and his award of about £94,000 was allowed to stand.

This was because the Post Office had failed to ensure that they properly managed the employee's return to work after a period of stress absence.

What should I be doing?
Preventative measures include:

  • Being aware of the signs of stress in the workplace
  • Offering employees access to a confidential advice or counselling service
  • Conducting a workplace stress risk assessment (to include a review of physical working conditions and training and support systems, identifying more susceptible employees, assessing the likelihood of stress, setting up a monitoring system to alert the employer to potential stress triggers and problems)
  • Training managers in stress awareness and management.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has published some extremely comprehensive guidance for both small and large employers and this can be found on its website. Click here for a summary of HSE's guidelines on work-related stress.

Michael Thompson is a partner in the human resources group of international law firm Eversheds, based in Manchester.

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