Stress guidance cuts compensation woes

Employers offering confidential counselling services to staff are unlikely
to be found guilty in stress compensation claims following a landmark legal
ruling last week.

The Court of Appeal has laid down new guidelines stating that stressed
employees must talk to bosses about their problems before resorting to legal
action.

The guidelines follow TUC research, which reveals a 12-fold increase in the
number of work-related stress claims last year.

The court overturned damages of almost £200,000 and ruled no job is
inherently dangerous to mental health. It also ruled that firms are entitled to
assume workers can handle the normal pressures of their job unless notified of
any problems.

Diane Sinclair, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, welcomed the guidelines
as they will place the onus on employees to raise their concerns over stress at
work before taking legal action.

"The Court of Appeal has reached the common sense decision. Employees
must make their employer aware of any stress they are suffering as a result of
work. Employers, for their part, must take complaints seriously and act as soon
as possible to resolve the problems," she said.

Russell McCallion, HR director for London Luton Airport, also supported the
ruling.

"Work is rarely the sole source of stress in an employee’s life,"
he said. "Perhaps this ruling will help address the reality that stress is
a factor in all aspects of life, not just at work. Employers do need to address
legitimate employee stress concerns in a supportive and realistic manner."

Christopher Mordue, an associate at Pinsent Curtis Biddle, said the ruling
will mean HR professionals must re-examine their policies to ensure they
provide effective counselling and occupational health provision.

By Ross Wigham

The guidelines will mean:

– Employers will usually be able to
assume that employees can withstand the pressures of the job unless they know
of some particular problem or vulnerability

– If the employer offers a confidential counselling service
with access to treatment they will rarely be held in breach of their duty of
care

– Employees will need to raise concerns regarding stress with
their employers and give the employer a chance to do something about it.

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Stress prevention better than cure

Russell McCallion, HR director at
London Luton Airport, said:

"First, the employee and employer can jointly address any
perceived issues at a stage before the employee is faced with a major health
problem, ensuring an early resolution.

Second, and of equal importance, the major stress imposed on
employee and employer in entering legal proceedings to resolve an advanced case
may be avoided."

Sally Storey, HR director at the
Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Greenwich, said:

"Although I support the move, I have concerns. Many staff
will be reluctant to disclose stress at early stages and this change in culture
will take a while to take effect. As an HR professional I am concerned that
hard-line managers will be able to hide behind the excuse of ‘they didn’t tell
me’.

"Line managers should be as aware [of staff stress
post-changes] as they are now."

Martin Hinchliffe, HR director for
Welcome Break, said:

"This will encourage all employers to examine their
internal procedures so they comply with the guidelines.

"Perhaps if an individual is alone in finding an existing
role stressful they could be moved to a different role within the company."

TUC senior health and safety
policy officer, Owen Tudor said:

"Unions will certainly ensure that employers know they
must assess the risks of stressful occupations. We shall make sure our members
know that the Court of Appeal has urged them not to suffer in silence but get
their complaints about bullying, overwork, inadequate training and unrealistic
deadlines on record."

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