According to the Health & Safety Executive stress is ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’ by their job.
As an employer, you owe your employees a duty of care. That is, a duty to provide a work environment where employees are not caused psychological harm and should they suffer work-related psychological harm, you must do everything that is reasonable to prevent continuing harm.
‘In determining whether an employer is responsible for stress in the workplace and therefore liable to pay compensation, the court will determine whether an employee’s work-related stress was 'reasonably foreseeable' by the employer,’ explains Emma Thompson, employment law specialist at Thackray Williams. ‘In other words, could you have predicted the work-related psychological harm and should you have prevented it from occurring?’
Common causes of work-related stress include:
- unmanageable deadlines;
- an excessive workload, possibly linked to staff cuts;
- an inadequate workload related to fear of being laid off;
- bullying by colleagues or managers;
- inadequate equipment or IT which makes it difficult to perform work to a high standard;
- an uncomfortable work environment, such as an office that is too cold;
- inadequate training for a job; or
- inadequate management support.
Some work is distressing or traumatic in itself and this may be forgotten due to the sheer familiarity. For example, the emergency services have long recognised the stressful nature of their work. More recently, the social media giants and the police have had to employ large teams of people who need to look through harmful content on a daily basis.
To ensure that none of your employees have cause to make a claim of stress at work, there are a number of steps that you should take.
It is important to ensure that each employee’s workload is adequate, manageable and within their capability.
You should undertake a workplace risk assessment and ensure that management is trained in identifying psychological hazards arising in the workplace.
Once a hazard is identified, a plan of action needs to be put in place, in line with your employment procedures and policies, to prevent any psychological harm to your employees in accordance with the current employment law legislation.
It is important that you have an adequate policy relating to stress at work. This should explain to employees what their duties are in terms of reporting stress and what you will do as their employer to help deal with any stress that occurs in the workplace. You must ensure that this policy is made available to employees and that it is read and understood by them.
To prevent any workplace bullying, you should include policies and a code of conduct on appropriate behaviour in the workplace in your employee handbook.
It is important to look beyond stress as a risk management problem to manage. Many employers now take a holistic approach to the wellbeing of their employees, with a wide range of support and employee benefits such as flexible working or mindfulness sessions. Not only does this make somewhere a nicer place to work, it can help with recruitment and retention.
Our employment lawyers can help you to ensure that you have the right policies and procedures in place. And, if one of your employees does make a stress at work claim against your organisation, we can help you carry out an investigation into whether the psychological harm could have been foreseen or prevented and manage your defence.