I’m concerned that stress levels among our employees are rising as we are seeing an increase in absenteeism. What can an employer do to minimise exposure to actions arising from allegations that it is responsible for stress-related illness brought on by issues in the workplace?
We do try to help employees who say we are suffering from stress – for example our occupational health department can refer them for counselling.
All employers are under a duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. This duty includes protecting employees against work-related stress. Stress however means different things to different people and is not always easy to identify.
For an employee to make out a stress-related claim they would have to demonstrate that the employer had breached its duty of care, that it was reasonably foreseeable that an injury would result from that breach, and that loss (usually by way of personal injury) has occurred as a result.
To minimise the risk of claims, an employer should undertake a health and safety stress risk assessment. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends a five step approach to such an assessment:
Step one: the employer needs to identify the hazards. The HSE identifies six risk factors for stress: demands, control, relationships, change, role and support.
Step two: the employer needs to decide who may be harmed and how.
Step three: the employer must evaluate the risk and take action. This will involve gathering information from employees – for example, by way of questionnaires or focus groups or back to work interviews following sickness absence. Once this information has been obtained the employer should discuss with the employee the nature of the problems and look for solutions. Finally, the employer needs to communicate with the work force and provide feedback so that where the process has identified individuals with particular concerns, the organisation can develop ways for these employees to raise their concerns, for example by way of employee assistance programs and counselling services.
Step four: record the findings of the assessment and incorporate them into an action plan.
Step five: monitor and review the assessment at appropriate intervals.
While having an occupational health department and referring individuals to counselling is a part of this process, it is not sufficient on its own to ensure an employer has done all it can to minimise its exposure to action. By undertaking a stress risk assessment, and acting on its findings, employers should see a reduction in absenteeism as well as ensuring that their exposure to claims is minimised.
Gagandeep Prasad, solicitor, and Jo Wort, professional support lawyer, Charles Russell