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April is Stress Awareness Month and whether working from home or amongst colleagues in the workplace, stress is a difficult, ever-present reality in today’s society, impacting us all in one way or another.
Defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as a harmful reaction that people have, as a result of undue pressures and demands placed upon them at work, workplace stress can also manifest itself due to external stresses and pressures. By its very nature therefore, the causes of an employee’s stress can be difficult to identify.
The consequences for an employer, if an employee suffering from stress is not managed in good time, is that they may see a decrease in performance, an increase in absence from work and potentially a higher staff turnover and even legal claims.
Despite the significant impact this issue can have on businesses, many employers still do not fully understand their responsibilities to employees when it comes to workplace stress.
Every employer in the UK is responsible for trying to alleviate stressful situations in the workplace and employees can seek legal recourse if they feel marginalised, harassed or develop stress-related illnesses at work.
Commenting on Stress Awareness Week, Simon Roberts, Solicitor at DAS Law, takes a look at what the law says employers needs to do about stress.
As an employer, you have a ‘duty of care’ towards your employees which means that you must do your upmost to prevent your staff from coming to harm in the workplace. As well as the more obvious health and safety issues, you should also take measures to prevent employees suffering from excessive stress in their jobs. These measures form a key part of the mandatory risk assessment which employers (with more than five employees) are expected to carry out to ensure that any health risks are mitigated.
Another important factor is assessing the possibility of stress-related illnesses amongst your workforce whilst putting appropriate steps in place so that it is counteracted. 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, implementing processes in ways which will not lead to excessive stress among the workforce, and so on.
The exact details will depend on the kind of work that your employees are undertaking, but you must be able show that you have thought about the issue(s) and considered suitable solutions.
As an employer, you are entitled to expect that your employees can cope with the normal pressures of the role, unless you are explicitly made aware of a particular issue. While you are expected to take the initiative on tackling stress in the workplace, employees are still expected to let you know if they believe they are suffering from stress related issues. They should also inform you if they think someone else is at risk from excessive levels of stress.
Advise your employees that if they feel stressed to suggest how they might be able to improve the situation, as it’s often easier for the people doing the work to identify better ways for any issue to be resolved.
If employees let you know they are suffering from stress it will mean you cannot claim you didn’t know about the situation if their stress worsens. If you do not act this will make it easier for them to bring a claim against you in the future.
If they develop 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.
As stated above, if the stress has caused them to suffer a mental health illness and they can establish that you allowed or created a poor work environment, and that it was foreseeable that they would suffer in this way, they may be able to pursue a claim.
If employees believe they 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 their ‘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 they have experienced has caused them to develop a mental health condition, you can also be ordered to compensate the employee for that personal injury as part of any discrimination claim as well.