Stress-related illness — the employer’s responsibilities

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In this article, Kathy Daniels, employment law author and associate professor, gives a summary of your responsibilities in ensuring that employees are not subject to excessive stress in the workplace.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that over 11 million working days are lost each year due to stress-related illness. It is one of the main causes of sickness absence among employees, and it is important that you understand what causes stress and your legal obligations to protect your employees.

Stress can be caused by a range of factors. The HSE identifies six main areas of stress in the workplace.

  1. Employees not being able to cope with the demands of their job.

  2. Employees being unable to control the way that they do their work.

  3. Not receiving enough information and support.

  4. Having relationship problems at work, including being bullied.

  5. Employees not understanding their roles and responsibilities.

  6. Employees not being engaged with an organisation which is undergoing change.

Stress affects different people in different ways. Some people will thrive on stress and will enjoy the adrenaline that it brings, whereas other people may struggle with a relatively low level of stress.

Your legal responsibility is set out in the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974. Among other duties, this requires the employer to provide a safe place of work and a safe system of work. This does not just mean that the work should be physically safe. You are also required to provide a place of work and a system of work that are psychologically safe. If the employee is suffering excessive stress, then you may be breaching this duty.

Of course, it is not always clear when an employee is suffering from stress. So, if an employee becomes ill and you were not aware that the employee was struggling, are you liable for the injury? The Court of Appeal sets out guidelines for determining employer liability in the cases of Sutherland v Hatton and others [2002].

The Court of Appeal was asked to consider four cases where the individuals had been successful in arguing that their employer was liable for psychological injury that they had sustained due to stress. In determining the outcome, the Court of Appeal said: “The employer should act on the information that they have. So, if an employee tells you that they are struggling due to stress you should take action to try to reduce that stress. However, if you do not know (and you reasonably could not have known) you are not liable.”

There are two important points to note. First, should you have known? You cannot always expect that an employee will tell you that they are stressed. As an employer, you should also be aware of any signs of stress. So, if an employee is tearful, particularly irritable, or shows other signs of stress you should ask them if something is wrong. Second, you are not required to probe excessively. If you ask an employee if they are struggling and they insist that they are not, you can accept what they tell you. If they then become ill, you are unlikely to be liable.

If an employee is in a stressful job but insists that they want to continue, you are not liable if they then become ill.

However, just because the employee says that they want to continue, this does not mean that you have no further responsibility. You would still need to show that you had tried to reduce the stress and had given adequate support to the employee.

An employer is required to take action to reduce stress, bearing in mind the size of the risk and the gravity of the situation.

It is not always possible to reduce stress in a job. Some jobs have demands that will always be challenging. However, you are responsible for supporting the employee to try to minimise the impact that the stress is having on them.

There is no job that is specifically dangerous to mental health. Different people react in different ways to stress, so it cannot be presumed that all employees will struggle with one particular job.

Although you must be aware that different people react in different ways to the same situation, you should use your knowledge and experience to be aware of some situations that most people find stressful. You should then offer relevant support to employees.

Providing access to a counselling or support service is certainly a good thing to do, but that does not mean that you have met all your responsibilities.

If you have given an employee access to a support service, your duties do not end there. You still need to be mindful of the stress that is caused by the job that the employee is doing and consider if there is anything that you can do to reduce that stress.

The employer is not liable for stress that is caused by personal situations.

We all have times when there are stressful events in our personal life. Although you are not liable for any personal difficulties, your employees might have; if you are aware that the difficulties are taking place, you should consider if there are any adjustments that need to be made to work. This would ensure that work-induced stress is not exacerbating any difficulties that the employee might be having.

Actions for employers

  • Make sure that your line managers are aware of the signs of stress and understand what to do should they be concerned about the mental health of an employee.

  • Consider introducing “mental health first aiders”. They would be employees trained in identifying colleagues who seem to be struggling with mental health problems and would be taught where to direct individuals for support and help.

  • Review workload as part of the appraisal process and take action if an employee is overloaded.

  • Ensure that mental health problems are not seen as something to be ashamed about in your workplace.

Comment from David Price, CEO of Health Assured and wellbeing expert

Stress is an individual’s reaction to pressures or demands that are placed on them. For many, workplace demands are the usual cause of high stress levels where an employee becomes overwhelmed or overloaded with work, short deadlines and demanding projects. Stress will have a significant detrimental impact on the workplace as its effects lead to unhealthy employees, low productivity, an increase in workplace disputes and higher absenteeism. Proactively taking steps to manage stress will help reduce these effects, and will also help employers meet their legal duty to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of employees.

The first step to managing stress is to develop awareness of the causes of stress and the effects of stress in the workplace. Whilst experiencing some stress is normal, employees who feel over-stressed or are suffering from work-related stress are at risk of becoming unhealthy. Employees themselves can be provided with training or awareness initiatives on how to determine their stress levels, how to manage stress and when to speak to management about this. Managers will require training on how to spot a member of staff who is suffering from stress. Although they are unlikely to become experts, and each individual will differ in how they project stress, usual signs of stress include changes in behaviour, the standard of work or the employee’s attitude towards tasks.

Managers who suspect an employee is suffering from stress need to hold a discussion with the individual themselves. This will help determine whether the individual is experiencing stress, what factors are affecting them e.g. whether this is work-related or personal factors, and how the workplace can help the employee. Without this discussion, the manager can make assumptions which could, in the long run, result in detrimental changes being introduced. Additionally, employees should be actively encouraged to approach their managers to discuss their health. Where a member of staff discloses they are feeling stressed, the same private discussion can be held.

Actively supporting employees in the workplace will help reduce stress and prevent employees from suffering detrimental levels of stress. Where the cause of stress has previously been identified as work-related, small changes to reduce the pressure on the employee will help manage this. This could include, for example, temporarily reducing workloads, providing additional support or reviewing deadlines. Even if stress is being affected by factors outside of work, employers can still provide support to aid employees. This may be through an Employee Assistance Programme, providing training on managing stress and promoting external advice or support services.

Stress, by itself, is not a mental condition that is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. It can, however, lead to further medical conditions or physical conditions that can fall within the definition of disability, such as depression, anxiety or heart disease. Proactively talking to employees with stress, and providing workplace support, will help ensure stress is managed before it progresses.

Last reviewed 12 December 2018

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