World Mental Health Day: managing stress in the workplace

Stress has become a major concern for UK employers. It is now the second most common cause of absence from work and figures continue to rise. Today is World Mental Health Day 2014, a good time for employers to look at their legal obligations towards staff who are suffering from stress.

In response to rising levels of stress at work, a number of initiatives have been launched. These include the Healthy Workplaces Campaign 2014-2015, announced by the European Commission, which aims to tackle stress in the workplace, and other similar schemes including Target depression in the workplace.

Estimates vary, but current statistics suggest that the global cost of work-related stress to the UK economy is somewhere in the region of £70-100 billion per annum, including healthcare fees.

Employers are subject to numerous statutory, contractual and common law obligations, but pressure is mounting on them to do more to control stress in the workplace.

Employers’ legal obligations

There are a number of legal obligations that an employer must comply with, including:

  • The Equality Act 2010 – in particular, that an individual should be not treated less favourably as a result of a protected characteristic. Mental ill health can constitute a disability under s.6 of the Act “if the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. Typically, if an individual has suffered with significant mental health issues for more than 12 months, they may be considered to be disabled within the meaning of the Act.
  • Common law duty of care – an employer has a duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent an employee from suffering psychiatric illness as a result of their employment. The exact scope of this duty is a complex legal issue but, at all times, employers should act reasonably and ought to consider the Health and Safety Executive’s publications Managing the causes of work-related stress and Tackling work-related stress (2001).
  • Contractual obligations – an employer is subject to the implied duty to provide a safe working environment and also the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence. Depending on the terms of the contract, the employer may also have express obligations in addition.
  • Statutory obligations – there are numerous statutory obligations placed on an employer. However, the primary legislation relating to stress at work is the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

Failure to comply with the above legal obligations can give rise to claims in both an employment tribunal and civil courts.

How to spot when an employee is stressed

Each employee is different and their ability to cope with stress is therefore unique, but common signs of the condition can include:

  • fatigue;
  • headaches;
  • short temper;
  • increased susceptibility to illness; and
  • weight loss.

An employee may not always want to report these symptoms for fear of how such a disclosure may affect their career.

An employer should, however, note abnormal changes in behaviour or uncharacteristic absences from work as this may be indicative of symptoms of stress. For instance, an employee who has historically been conscientious and highly motivated with little sickness absence may, without alternative explanation, be suffering with stress. Signs include an individual becoming demotivated, having uncharacteristic absences from work or starting to make unusual mistakes.

The key for employers is to look for changes in their employees as, without alternative explanation, this may be indicative of stress-related symptoms.

How to deal with an employee suffering from stress

It is important for employers to understand the cause of the employee’s stress-related symptoms. An open and frank discussion with an employee at an early stage is vital. Bear in mind that direct HR involvement in the meeting might add to the employee’s stress. An informal discussion between the employee and a direct line manager is preferable, with the line manager reporting to HR for advice.

Line managers should attempt to ascertain what is causing the employee’s symptoms and they should consider what can practically be done to assist the employee. For instance, they could look at whether or not the employee would benefit from a referral to occupational health or from a stress risk assessment. It is important to discuss the employee’s workload and any tensions in work relationships. The line manager should make a contemporaneous note of the meeting and send this to the employee for agreement.

It is advisable to also arrange follow-up meetings to monitor progress of an employee and continue to provide appropriate support to the employee, subject to the reasonable needs of the business.

Preventing stress in the workplace and World Mental Health Day

Communication is key to preventing stress in the workplace. Employees and line managers should both feel able to communicate with each other. Regular one-to-one meetings and appraisals are a useful tool, but the employee has to feel able to communicate their concerns without fear of being reprimanded. Providing confidential counselling services can also be beneficial.

World Mental Health Day is a good reminder that dedicating resources and time to the prevention of stress in the workplace will save money in the long run.


About Richard Coulthard

Richard Coulthard is head of the stress at work department of Michael Lewin Solicitors.
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