By Sue Nickson, a partner and national head of employment law at Hammonds
Q What issues are raised by the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) decision to issue an improvement notice to an NHS trust for work-related stress?
A Under the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974, the employer has a duty to ensure as far as is reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare of its workers. Subordinate regulations require the employer to carry out a risk assessment in respect of potential harm to staff as a consequence of carrying out their job.
The HSE recently issued its first-ever enforcement notice requiring an employer to carry out a risk assessment for the exposure of staff to stress in the workplace. It was issued to West Dorset General Hospital Trusts following complaints of bullying and long working hours. Failure to comply with the notice could lead to large fines, or even prison sentences for senior executives.
Q What should employers do?
A Employers should monitor staff with a view to determining whether there are any issues that may give rise to additional pressure or stress at work, such as workload. This should take the form of an initial risk assessment. Systems should be in place for identifying and minimising stress and employees should be given opportunities to discuss any concerns and encouraged to ask for help.
The HSE is running a pilot on management standards for reducing and dealing with workplace stress. The draft standards identify six areas - demands, controls, support, relationships, role and change - and provide targets to be achieved by employers in each one. The HSE hopes to formalise the Management Standards in 2004 following the pilot, but it is encouraging employers to apply the standards now to help reduce workplace stress.
Q When will an employer be liable for personal injury arising from work-related stress?
A Every employer owes a duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of its employees. To establish that the employer is liable for personal injury caused by stress at work, the employee must show that the employer has breached that duty.
In the case of Sutherland v Hatton, 2002, IRLR 236, the Court of Appeal held that unless an employer knows of a particular problem or vulnerability, it is generally entitled to assume that the employee can withstand the normal pres