International Stress Awareness Month: your workplace rights

Whether working from home or amongst colleagues in the workplace, stress is an ever-present reality in today’s society, impacting millions of people across the country.

29th March 2022

Every employer in the UK has a duty of care to try and alleviate stressful situations in the workplace and employees can seek legal recourse if they feel marginalised, harassed or develop stress-related illnesses at work.

Ahead of Stress Awareness Month, which takes place next month, Simon Roberts, Solicitor at DAS Law, takes a look at what the law says your employer needs to do about stress in the workplace.

Your employer’s responsibilities

Your employer has a ‘duty of care’ towards you (and all employees), which means that they must do their best to prevent you from coming to harm in the workplace. As well as physical health and safety issues, they should also take measures to prevent employees suffering from excessive stress in their jobs. They will be expected to do this as part of the risk assessment which employers (with more than five employees) are expected to carry out to ensure that any health risks are identified and mitigated.

This means they need to have looked at the possibility of stress-related illnesses amongst their workforce and put steps in place to ensure they are dealt with. This might include providing employees with information about how to reduce stress and what to do if they are struggling, supplying counselling services which employees can make use of and implementing processes in ways which will not lead to excessive stress among the workforce.

The exact details will depend on the kind of work their employees are doing, but they must be able to show that they have thought about the issues and considered appropriate solutions.

Given the increase in flexible and hybrid working patters, more people are working from home. What responsibilities do employers have to alleviate workplace stress in today’s working environment?

Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for people working at home. Whilst the risk to a worker will be low at home employers should nonetheless carry out a risk assesment. Employers should review the home working environment to check whether the job is suitable for home working including for example the workstation setup at home.

What should employees do if they feel they or a colleague are suffering from workplace stress?

Whilst employers are expected to take the initiative on tackling stress in the workplace, employees are still  expected to let their employer know if they are struggling with stress related issues. They should also inform their employer if they think a colleague is at risk from excessive levels of stress.

If an individual is bringing the issue of workplace stress to their employer, it is best to also come up with some suggestions on how they might be able to improve the situation (it’s often easier for the people doing the work to identify better working practicies).

Another benefit of letting an employer know if staff are suffering from stress is that it will ensure that they cannot claim they did not know about the situation if the situation worsens and a claim is brought against them in the future.

If an employee develops a long-term mental health condition as a result of stress in the workplace, that condition may amount to a disability under the Equality Act, which provides them with additional protection from discrimination.

Can you sue a company for stress caused by workplace discrimination?

If you have suffered discrimination in the workplace (which can be related to a number of protected characteristics) one of the categories that an employment tribunal can award compensation for is your ‘injury to feelings’.

The stress and upset that the discrimination caused can, therefore, be considered as part of any compensation awarded to the employee. If the stress that you have experienced has caused you to develop a mental health condition, the employer can also be ordered to compensate you for that personal injury as part of any discrimination claim as well.

Can you pursue a personal injury claim against your employer for workplace stress?

If the stress that you have been under at work has caused you to develop a mental health illness, it is possible to pursue a claim for personal injury against your employer. You would have to establish that it was foreseeable to your employer that the stress that you had been under would lead to a mental health illness in order for the claim to succeed.

If you felt that the stress you were under was no longer sustainable and you resigned as a result, you may have a claim for constructive unfair dismissal on the basis that your employer has breached the implied term of trust and confidence by failing to provide a safe system of work.

Can you sue for stress caused by a poor work environment?

If the stress has caused you to suffer a mental health illness and you can establish that your employer allowed or created a poor work environment, and that it was foreseeable that you would suffer in this way, you may be able to pursue a claim. However, we would strongly recommend seeking legal advice prior to making any claim of this sort.