HR practitioners are increasingly looking for a preventative approach to
stress claims rather than a reactive and purely legal one. Here, analysts from
three different disciplines strive to come up with holistic solutions
Gwenllian-Jane Williams, psychologist
What is this issue that costs British business so much in time and revenue?
The Health and Safety Executive has defined occupational stress as ‘the adverse
reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed
upon them’ (HSE, 2001).
There can be little dispute with this definition, yet its catch-all nature
illustrates the vagueness of stress. ‘Adverse reaction’ can be anything from
headaches to ulcers, depending on the individual; the ‘excessive pressures’
felt by one person are motivating challenges to another and one person’s
accepted job responsibilities are seen as excessive demands by others. The only
thing that can be said with any certainty about stress is that it is complex
and impossible to measure accurately. There is no clinical definition. Yet it
is felt in all types of organisation, at all levels and by all types of people.
At any one time, a fifth of British workers rate themselves as very or
In analysing the causes of occupational stress, the organisation has to look
both inside and out. The economy in which a business operates will exacerbate
any internal stressors. In times of growth, people tend to report long hours
and workload as the key causes. More recently, in the economic downturn, it is
more likely to be triggered by general insecurity, cost-cutting and diminishing
Within the organisation, culture and values will have a considerable impact
on stress levels. While there is no defined ‘stress-prone culture’, there is
wide agreement that organisations who fail to put their people at the very
centre of their values will be prone to internal stressors such as poor
communication, ineffective people management, lack of development and slow
Culture, like stress, is not so easy to measure. Nevertheless, all
organisations can analyse aspects of the business that research has shown to be
stress factors. Staff surveys can go some way to identifying weak spots.
However, if the organisation wants to get a thorough picture of stress levels,
then a properly developed diagnostic tool will get the accurate, in-depth
information required for moving forward to management strategies. For example,
the Corporate Stress Profiler, currently being developed by CGR Business
Psychologists, analyses 10 key areas of a business which research has
identified as causing or connected to stress.
Diagnosing the causes of stress is only one weapon in the armoury against
this business threat. Indeed, diagnosis is often a reaction after stress has
begun to manifest in absenteeism, turnover and low morale. At the forefront of
the management of stress needs to be the ability of managers to recognise the
symptoms. Again, this is not necessarily an easy task as stress can manifest in
any of three symptom categories – emotional, behavioural or physical. Also,
symptoms can be short-term or long-term.
Behaviours are the easiest symptoms to recognise. These include such
patterns as hoarding work, erratic decision making, social withdrawal,
unrealistically long hours, evident worrying, inability to concentrate and
change in normal mood, to name but a few. Emotional symptoms will be evident to
managers who know their people well. Typical emotional reactions include
anxiety, loss of confidence and an overwhelming feeling of inability to cope.
It is the physical symptoms that are hardest to spot and yet the most
threatening in the long term. Most of us will have experienced short-term
stress reactions, usually in response to a particular stressful event or
situation: tension, dry mouth, sweating and rapid heartbeat. It is when these
symptoms are frequent, hidden and prolonged that physical illnesses can
develop, such as musculo-skeletal complaints, digestive problems, sleep disruption,
fatigue and high blood-pressure. It is these symptoms which underlie the
greater part of the business threat, either as absence, lowered productivity
or, increasingly, as a basis for litigation.
Ian Farrand, HR consultant
The complexity of stress management is a recurring theme for many businesses
these days. Those involved in HR management need to be sensitive and aware of
the negative aspects of stress and the expensive effects this can have for the
individual and employer.
The HR practitioner often has the difficult role of ensuring stress
management is included in strategic aspects of employee support. Not
acknowledging the potential for stress in an organisation can have disastrous
consequences for the business.
Organisations that have effective occupational health support services are
more likely to be in a position to provide assistance to individuals suffering
adverse effects of stress. The individual’s manager, HR and OH need to work
closely in providing support, whether this be changing the job description or
looking for alternative work.
In terms of risk assessment, it is essential to examine the potential ‘hot
spots’ that may trigger stress in an individual – particularly an unreasonable
workload, but also factors such as the physical conditions of the job, job
design, and related work organisation and conditions.
Businesses need also to examine their value systems. There is little point,
for instance, in promulgating work-life balance polices, if you are at the same
time driving people too hard through over-zealous performance management,
targets and objective setting. HR practitioners have a crucial role in bringing
management attention to the fact that there are three good reasons for ensuring
there are no adverse effects from stress for employees – business, legal and
Organisations are very jittery about who will be next to accuse them of
causing stress. Some companies have introduced employee support systems because
they genuinely see their employees as a valuable asset. Good practice suggests
the best remedies lie in reviewing management practice and improving
communication. Find the cause of the real problem; talk to staff and
communicate what is going on in the organisation; listen to what people need.
Long hours, for example, may not be the cause of the stress – take an
onion-skin approach and ask why you have long hours. Is it cultural or do you
simply need more staff?
We need to be more creative about how much people work, when and where. The
speed of new technology and communications must be made to serve us rather than
lead to us becoming slaves to the system even further.
Christopher Mordue, employment law
The recent Court of Appeal case of Sutherland v Hatton (2002) nails the myth
that occupational stress in itself entitles sufferers to compensation. The
crucial question is whether there was a foreseeable risk of harm from
occupational stress. Without this, the employee’s case will not get off the
This risk can be established in a variety of ways, but the Court of Appeal
placed an onus on the individual employee to alert the employer to potential
risks to health. Three of the four cases considered in the appeal failed on the
grounds that the employee had not done enough to warn the employer they could
not cope and that work pressures were causing their health to suffer. Only once
this threshold is satisfied will the employer come under a duty to take
reasonable steps to minimise the risk to health.
Employees could become more vocal in raising stress concerns with their
employers. The TUC’s response to the Court of Appeal decision was to pledge to
ensure members raised internal grievances to overcome this legal hurdle. But in
the long term, cases will turn less on the foreseeability of harm than on the
adequacy of the employer’s response. While the court took the pragmatic view
that in some cases the employer may not be able to do anything to remove or
reduce the risk of stress-related illness, you should still be careful to
consider all possible solutions and have good reasons to justify any failure to
act. This is very similar to the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the
Disability Discrimination Act.
The Court of Appeal suggested employers providing confidential helplines
with access to professional support would rarely be found to be in breach of
their duty. But this must be viewed with caution – a helpline is unlikely to
prove a complete defence. It is, however, a sensible practical step and removes
one of the principle barriers to employees raising their concerns – that for
most employees, admitting they cannot cope to line managers is unthinkable.
Bear in mind that even if there is a helpline, the issue still needs to be
referred to management so the root causes of any issues can be addressed.
The court also suggested employers are entitled to assume employees are fit
to perform their duties. However, this does not mean employers will only be
under a duty to act if the employee raises a complaint. Employers must also be
vigilant for signs of a risk to health from the wider workforce, from unusual
patterns of absence or simply from the knowledge that they are asking too much
of a particular employee.
In any event, personal injury claims are only one of the many liabilities
generated by occupational stress. It also raises issues of disability
discrimination and, in the case of ill-health terminations, the risk of unfair
dismissal. The underlying causes of stress are a common basis for claims.
Discrimination and unfair dismissal awards can include compensation for
These risks can only be controlled through comprehensive stress policies,
the establishment of a culture which allows problems to be raised by employees,
and the training of line management to recognise the indications of stress and
to deal appropriately with the underlying causes and the management of the
stressed employee. Closing your eyes to such problems until an employee
complains can still generate significant liabilities.
Burying your head in the sand means other parts of your anatomy are left
exposed – you simply can’t see the claim coming.
This article was adapted by Dr John McMullen from a recent seminar
organised by Pinsent Curtis Biddle and CGR Business Psychologists
Four steps to good stress management
– Develop a stress management policy
– Regularly analyse the risk factors
– Give team or departmental managers some way of measuring
– Minimise or eliminate the risk factors whenever possible
Note: each of these requires training support for managers and
employees. Stress awareness needs to be an open organisational issue. Burying
it only serves to increase the vulnerability factor.
This article first appeared in the September 2002 edition of Employers
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