Stress at work – how should you handle it?

It’s one of the all too familiar situations faced by employers. An employee is certified as unfit for work due to stress and/or anxiety. Often their condition is attributed to work. This may be due to workload pressures, including tight deadlines, too much responsibility or a lack of managerial support. It could also be the result of a performance management or disciplinary process.

Research shows that employee stress levels are increasing in line with the demands of the modern workplace. In 2015 a survey published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that stress was one of the most common causes of long-term absence. By way of example, in 2014/15 stress accounted for 35% of all work related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health. The total number of working days lost due to stress in 2014/15 equated to an average of 23 days lost per case.

Frequent or prolonged absence due to stress or its related conditions can prove extremely disruptive and expensive for employers, especially those with contractual sick pay policies in place. The question, therefore, is what can employers do to minimise sickness absences due to stress?

Health & Safety – what are the requirements?

All employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees; this includes providing them with a safe place of work.

Employers also have a general duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This includes undertaking a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the health and safety risks that employees are exposed to at work which, if not properly assessed, could result in a diagnosis of stress.

What claims could a stressed employee bring against an employer?

Stress can be a complex workplace issue and there is no legislation in the UK specifically dealing with it. An employee complaining of work-related stress is likely to consider bringing any of the following claims:

  • Unfair dismissal – where, for example, an employee has been signed off work with stress and is then dismissed.
  • Disability discrimination – anxiety, stress and depression may amount to a disability if they have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an employee’s day-to-day activities, thereby giving rise to protection under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Breach of contract – an employee may argue that they are suffering from stress due to a breach of their employment contract (express and/or implied terms) by their employer. This may also lead to a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.
  • Personal injury – the main source of cases on stress is a breach of the employer’s common law duty of care/common law negligence. Those bringing these claims will often rely on:
    • health and safety legislation; and
    • restrictions on working hours (pursuant to the Working Time Regulations 1998)
  • Harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – this prohibits anyone from pursuing a “course of conduct which amounts to harassment” and which that person knows or ought to know amounts to harassment.

How to manage stress – a practical guide

Employers can take steps to reduce the number of employees suffering from stress by:

  • Monitoring workloads, holding regular one to one meetings and annual or bi-annual performance appraisals;
  • Implementing appropriate internal policies and procedures, in particular a stress policy setting out how employees should deal with the effects of stress and how they can raise concerns;
  • Training managers to recognise stressful situations and to identify the symptoms of stress and how to manage this;
  • Holding return-to-work interviews after periods of sickness absence. This should help to identify any underlying stress-related reason for absence;
  • Providing support via an employee assistance programme, occupational health service or independent counselling service; and
  • Conducting a stress audit amongst its employees to ascertain the general consensus among the workforce and identify any concerns.

For more information or for any employment law enquiries the employment team can be contacted at [email protected] or 020 7408 8888.