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Take a deep breath: Managing stress in the workplace

April 2020 is Stress Awareness Month. Employers should pay attention to how they can best look out for their employees in the workplace particularly during these times of global crisis and alternative working arrangements.

Why should employers care about stress?

Employers have a legal duty to assess the risk of work-related stress and to take measures to control these risks. A company may face possible legal action for failing to protect the mental health of its employees at work.

Employees experiencing hardships in and out of work could lead to a higher number of absence due to sick days or long-term work-related illnesses. This could ultimately and inevitably lead to lower productivity levels, an affected staff turnover and revenue loss.

A lack of stress-management produces a domino effect seen through a possible creation of an unhealthy workplace culture consisting of absenteeism alongside decreased incentive to work and strained relations with colleagues.

Here’s a breakdown of how employers can best action stress-management at work:

Understand stress in the workplace and how to reduce it

‘Stress’ is a complex concept that has a large scope. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. Practitioners like Dr Karl Albrecht have famously categorised workplace stress into four common types: time stress, anticipatory stress, situational stress and encounter stress.

Time stress

Occurs when employees worry about time, or the lack thereof. This involves worrying about tasks that need to get done, including a fear of failure. Time management skills, prioritisation and action programs can usually help reduce time stress.

Anticipatory stress

Involves employees over-thinking about the future. In particular, having a sense of dread about future work tasks or that something in the workplace may go wrong. Positive visualisation techniques and meditation can usually help reduce anticipatory stress.  

Situational stress

Is often experienced when employees find themselves in sudden and unexpected circumstances. Self-awareness, conflict resolution skills and emotional management can usually help reduce situational stress.

Encounter stress

This is people-oriented and occurs where employees worry about certain workplace interactions (i.e. with colleagues or customers). Empathy, a higher emotional intelligence and deep breathing exercises can usually help reduce encounter stress.

How can employers improve stress in the workplace?

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) recommends that employers follow the HSE’s six management standards to manage employee stress:

  1. Pay attention to the way a job is designed, its training needs and whether it is possible for employees to work more flexible hours;
  2. Think about how employees are actively involved in decision making, the contribution made by teams and how reviewing performance can help identify strengths and weaknesses;
  3. Check the organisation’s policies for handling grievances, unsatisfactory performance, poor attendance and misconduct, and for tackling bullying and harassment;
  4. Review the induction process, work out an accurate job description and maintain a close link between individual targets and organisational goals;
  5. Plan ahead so change does not come out of the blue; and
  6. Consult with employees so they have a real input and work together to solve problems.

Benefits of employees with reduced stress-levels

Employers will find that the quality of working life increases when actions are taken to prevent workplace stress. ACAS suggests that employees will undoubtedly feel happier at work and perform better. The likelihood of resolving employment-related problems at an employment tribunal may decrease as a result of more effective employment relations since problems will be able to be resolved at work. Factors such as attendance and sickness levels may also decrease.

Lessons from the past

Employers liability for stress-induced illnesses in the workplace

It is well known by now that employers should step in, investigate and actively manage employment-related stress (Barber v Somerset City Council [2004] UKHL 13).

The extent to which employers should think about employee stress levels was examined in Easton v B&Q PLC [2015] EWHC 880 (QB). In particular, the court was asked to determine whether B&Q had been in breach of its duty of care for one of its employees who was suffering from a work-related psychiatric illness.  The employee became unwell due to occupational stress and subsequently was away from work for 5 months. The employee returned on a phased return programme at a different store and later relapsed due to depression. A fundamental argument in the case was that B&Q failed to conduct a risk assessment of the employee’s role in relation to stress.

The outcome of the case focused on foreseeability.  If employers know or ought reasonably to know that an employee is suffering or at risk of suffering a work-related illness, they are obliged to make enquires and take necessary steps to conduct a risk-assessment and provide support for the employee. However, employers are also entitled to assume that employees can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless suggested otherwise. Going back to the case, the employee did not explicitly mention during any meetings or appraisals that they were struggling to cope with the demands of the job. B&Q were thus deemed not liable for the employee’s illness on this occasion.

 

Employers should pay attention to how they can best look out for their employees in the workplace particularly during these times of global crisis and alternative working arrangements.

Links with other employment matters

It is easy for workplace stress to tie into other employment-related issues. Employers should therefore be cautious of the ways in which stress could lead to aggravated workplace claims.

For example, in Marshall  Specialist  Vehicles  Ltd  v  Osborne  (UKEAT/101/02) an employee claimed constructive dismissal arising out of stress at work:

The tribunal implied a term that employers  should  take  reasonable care to avoid  imposing  a workload, or acquiescing in an employee’s assumption of a workload, that would foreseeably cause mental or physical injury. The tribunal found that the term had been breached.

However, the  EAT  overturned  this  decision  and criticised the tribunal for ‘manufacturing’ a term which was designed to provide the means to achieve a predetermined result. The EAT stated that there already was a general implied term that employers should take reasonable care for the safety of their employees.

The upshot

The case law mentioned above shows that employers should be more aware of risk management techniques in relation to employees’ workload. It is important that open-dialogues with employees take place especially in light of COVID-19 when many employees are working from home and may feel isolated.

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Disclaimer
This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full General Notices on our website.

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