Stress in the workplace

Q What are the signs of a stressed employee?

A Employees will often not want to admit to their employer or themselves that the pressure of work is getting to them. However, because the law expects employers to predict and avoid reasonably foreseeable risks of injury to their employees, including the damaging effects of stress, employers must be on the lookout. It is not sufficient to wait for an employee to complain.

Some of the common symptoms of stress in employees are:

– a negative change in mood or behaviour

– a deterioration in relationships with colleagues

– longer hours being worked with no additional achievement

– indecisiveness

– absenteeism

– poor performance (more mistakes, missed deadlines and a reluctance to face up to or prioritise difficult tasks).

Q What should employers do to prevent stress at work?

A It is important that managers and colleagues are able to identify potential problems at an early stage, so training can be useful. There should be easy ways for employees to raise concerns about work pressure both informally and formally, perhaps via general supervision and management, as a specific part of a grievance procedure or even under a dedicated stress policy.

Giving access to trained confidential counsellors can be useful, though their role needs to be carefully thought through, particularly with regard to the action that they can and cannot take once they know an employee is stressed. Where an employee is suffering from stress a course of action should be agreed with them and the outcome monitored.

Q What should an employer do where it suspects an employee is stressed, but they deny it?

A Employers are under a duty to protect employees’ health and safety, regardless of whether an employee is willing to run the risk of harm. For this reason, it is important for an employer not to take such a denial at face value. Concerns should be raised in a way that makes it easy for the employee to be honest – for example away from a particularly tough manager. If the employee continues to deny that they are stressed, the employer should make a dated note of all conversations on the subject and ensure the situation is monitored.

Q How does it affect the situation if an employee’s stress is caused by problems not related to their work?

A An employer’s duty of care does not extend to preventing ill health caused by problems in employees’ personal lives, such as divorce, bereavement or money worries. Legally, because such a stress-related condition is not caused by the employer, an employee would not normally be able to bring a personal injury claim.

However, it is possible that a failure to take such matters into account in dealing with poor performance and/or increased absence might render any dismissal unfair. It might also amount to a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence and, if the breach was sufficiently serious, the employee might resign and claim unfair constructive dismissal.

If an employee is known to be having problems outside work, this must be taken into account when carrying out risk assessments as it could make them more vulnerable at work.

Q How should employees who just cannot handle the pressure be treated?

A If an employer has identified that a worker is at risk from, or is suffering from, stress due to the type or amount of work they are doing, it is under a duty to take reasonable measures to alleviate the problem. If those reasonable measures do not solve the problem, disciplinary or poor performance procedures can begin.

However, where a stress-related illness amounts to a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, or the stress is caused by unlawful discrimination or harassment, the employer must take steps to make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s workplace or prevent the discrimination as appropriate.

By Vince Toman, Lewis Silkin/provided by XpertHR

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