Occupational stress

03 January 2006
Occupational stress

This article first appeared on www.personneltoday.com, the website of Personnel Today magazine.

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Philip Paget, partner and head of employment law and Suzanne Baxter, solicitor at Gordons, offer advice on dealing with workplace stress

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), work-related stress costs employers approximately £3.7bn a year. There are an average 92,000 new cases occurring each year in the UK, and reportedly up to 13.4 million days are lost each year due to stress at work.

On this basis, employers would benefit from getting to grips with work-related stress, and finding ways to reduce it.

Management standards

The HSE's management standards are aimed at helping employers understand their duties to their employees under current legislation and case law, and to help them gauge whether they are fulfilling them.

Employers should consider the following:

  • At least 85% of workers should be satisfied that they are able to cope with the demands of their job, have a say about the way they do their work and receive adequate information and support from colleagues and superiors

  • At least 60% of employees should agree that they are not subject to unacceptable behaviours at work, understand their roles and responsibilities, and are frequently engaged in organisational change.

The nature of work-related stress means employers must have a greater awareness of the jobs they provide, their employees and any warning signs employees may display.

What practical steps can employers take?

Employers should consider providing a confidential advice and counselling service for staff, with referrals for appropriate treatment. This is likely to play a significant role in preparing a successful defence to a stress claim.

Setting up health screening questionnaires for new members of staff can be positive. This enables employers to consider an applicant's vulnerabilities at an early stage alongside the position they have applied for.

Employers should document your how they consider the company will meet the HSE's management standards.

When completing company risk assessments or updating old assessments, employers should consider stress in terms of possible risks to staff. When documenting the steps they are taking to reduce or remove the risk, they should include the positive steps they have taken.

Putting a system in place for monitoring start and finish times and overtime is advisable, as is following up the monitoring with meetings or informal discussions where necessary.

An employer is entitled to assume that an employee is able to cope with the normal pressures of a job, unless the employer is aware of some particular problem or vulnerability regarding an individual. The test is what the employer knows, or ought to have known, about the employee, the specific job the employee does, or a combination of the two.

What should employers monitor in terms of the nature and extent of the work done by the employee?

Ask the following questions:

Is the workload normal or excessive?

  • Is the work particularly challenging or demanding, intellectually, physically or emotionally?

  • Does the employee make demands that are unreasonable or greater than others in similar positions?

  • Are there high levels of sickness or absenteeism in that department/position?

  • What do employers need to take into account regarding what they know about the employee?

Ask the following questions:

  • Is the employee already suffering from illness attributable to stress at work?

  • Do they have a history of stress-related illness?

  • Is the employee excessively absent or for prolonged periods, which is out of character?

Employers are entitled to take what they are told by their staff at face value unless there is good reason or evidence to the contrary. It is not enough for the employee to state that occupational stress has caused the harm. The employee must show that their employer was in breach of duty, and that the breach caused, or materially contributed to, the harm.

An employer will only be in breach if they failed to take reasonable steps in all the circumstances.

If a claim comes before a court, what factors would the judge take into account?

The judge would consider the following points:

  • The magnitude of risk of harm occurring

  • The gravity of the harm that may occur

  • The cost and practicability of preventing the harm

  • The size of the employer's operations and resources when considering a breach.

Does a diagnosis of occupational stress automatically infer an employer breach?

A diagnosis of occupational stress does not automatically infer an employer breach. So while the number of stress-related claims might be on the increase, they are by no means always successful.

The other area of concern is the risk of constructive unfair dismissal. If an employer is well aware that the demands of a particular job are excessive and ignores complaints from the employee, and reasonable preventions or remedies to the problem, then there is a risk of a claim being made in the employment tribunals as well.

An affected employee could resign and claim the employer's failure to address their concerns amounted to a fundamental breach of the contract of employment.

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