Damages awards in stress claims are often high damages of £175,000 were awarded in the landmark case Walker v Northumberland County Council. Other out-of-court settlements have ranged from £25,000 to £230,000.
If employers do not have the appropriate structure in place to deal with workplace stress, they are subject to a high risk of claims. As a result you should consider reviewing your stress policy, or if you don’t have one, create one as soon as possible.
Why have a stress policy?
It is in both the interests of the employee and employer to follow a clear policy to minimise the likelihood of work-related stress.
There are a number of laws dealing with work-related stress, including health and safety legislation imposing a duty of care on employers not to harm their employees. To comply with this duty, employers are expected to perform an assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees.
A stress policy indicates the employer’s commitment to the wellbeing of its employees and provides employees with comfort that consistent procedures will be followed when handling stress. Also, the existence of and adherence to a comprehensive stress policy is likely to be one of the relevant factors that a tribunal and/or court may consider when determining the employer’s liability for a stress claim.
Many high-profile cases are founded on work-induced stress such as excessive workload or working hours, lack of training, discrimination or bullying.
In Hartman v South Essex Mental Health and Community Care NHS Trust, a prison officer suffered psychiatric injury after having to dispose of the bodies of deceased prison inmates who had committed suicide. In this case the employer tried to argue it was not reasonably foreseeable that the prison officer would suffer such an illness.
The court referred to the guidelines given by the Court of Appeal in the landmark case Sutherland v Hatton. It was held that the employer was found to be in breach of its duties of care, because it failed to ensure the employee was offered access to adequate post-incident care, such as counselling.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advises employers, in its guidance Management standards for work-related stress, to consult employees by conducting stress audits and regular performance interviews to identify the problem areas. Once aware of the potential stressors, you should then be able to commit to addressing the problems.
This may be by asking the employee how best to alleviate or remove the stress, for example through redistributing the workload, counselling or offering sabbaticals.
Signs of stress
It is not uncommon for management to ignore obvious signs of stress. This can be for many reasons, including an inability to appreciate the susceptibility to stress of an individual, which is different in each case. Without training in this area management may not be operating the policy properly.Regular staff training, along with monitoring employees with known health risks, are important issues to address and take into account when handling complaints. If formal disciplinary action is necessary, then fair and appropriate procedures must be followed.
Make sure that the stress policy does not form part of the employment contract. This will reduce the risk of being sued for breach of contract should the policy not be followed to the letter.
A careful review of the existing terms and conditions of the employment contract and staff handbook to ensure that the stress policy does not contradict nor override the contract will be necessary.
Steps to implementation
Good communication between you and your employees is essential. You should ensure that the stress policy is widely publicised among your employees by individual letters, posters in the workplace and on the intranet.
Make employees aware how and whom they should approach with a work-related stress problem. If, in implementing a policy, changes are made to employees’ existing terms and conditions of employment you may, depending on the numbers affected, need to consult employees within minimum time frames under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
Paul Griffin is partner and Caroline Hughes trainee solicitor at law firm Norton Rose
HSE guidance in the form of management standards for tackling work-related stress and an example of a stress policy
Acas guidance with practical examples on how to deal with stress at work
Legal Q & A: liability for employee stress
This is how I did it
Key points to include in your stress policy
- A statement of your commitment to monitor and reduce work-related stress
- A definition of stress. (HSE guidance defines stress as the “adverse reaction people experience when excessive pressures or types of demand are placed on them”)
- Identify work-stressors
- Provide for, and regularly review, risk assessments to health
- Provide a system for recording and managing the risks
- Ensure suitable and sufficient training is provided to all staff
- Ensure suitable support mechanisms are in place, for example, confidential counselling
- Give employees guidance on how to deal with the effects of stress and how to raise concerns within the workplace
- Detail the responsibilities of different staff groups.
Health and Safety Executive guidance
The HSE advises employers to include the following wording at the beginning of your policy: “We are committed to protecting the health, safety and welfare of our employees. We recognise that workplace stress is a health and safety issue and acknowledge the importance of identifying and reducing workplace stressors.”
Also, the HSE emphasises the need to make sure your managers:
- monitor workloads to ensure that people are not overloaded
- monitor working hours and overtime to ensure that staff are not overworking
- monitor holidays to ensure that staff are taking their full entitlement
- are vigilant and offer additional support to staff who are under stress outside work because, for example, of bereavement or separation.