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Hallett
Employment Law Services Ltd

Stress

1. What is Stress?

All of us are put under stress from time to time. This can be positive in some circumstances, driving workers to meet targets, and improve speed of service and delivery. Different people respond to this in different ways, and over different periods. However, this day-to-day, in some cases routine, level of stress is not what this article is about. There is a difference between the routine, or even occasionally extreme, pressures that most people face on a day-to-day basis at work and an unhealthy persistent or constantly extreme level of pressure that leads to stress.

Stress undermines performance, and health. As long ago as 2004/2005 the HSE estimated that 12.8 million working days were lost to stress, depression, and anxiety in the U.K. Clearly, for this reason alone employers need to take the issue of “stress” very seriously.

There are many symptoms of stress, and managers need to look out for the signs of stress within their workforce in order to address them at the earliest possible stage.

Psychological Signs of Stress

These may include anxiety, lack of concentration, poor memory, lack of self esteem, insomnia, and depression.

Physical Signs of Stress

These may include loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, shaking, frequent headaches, and tiredness.

Different people may show different symptoms, or combinations of symptoms. Therefore employers and managers need to be aware of any of the typical psychological and physical signs of stress in any of their workers, and not assume that just because one or two signs are not obvious that the worker concerned is not under “stress”.

Are there any other signs of stress?

A common sign of stress is an increase in the sickness absence of the worker concerned. This may appear at first glance as an unrelated series of short-term sicknesses, for which a variety of causes have been given. Employers should be able to spot this, particularly in staff that may previously had very few days off work due to sickness.

2. How is Stress caused?

Again, just as the symptoms of stress are varied, so are the causes. Organisational factors may play a part – including re-organisation of business, changing of job roles or duties, poor staff/management communication, poor working environment, excessive workload, lack of support or training, or unrealistic targets.

Personal factors may include bereavement, financial worries, illness, or relationship breakdown.

Often an individual exhibiting signs of stress may be suffering from symptoms caused by a combination of personal factors and work-related or organisational factors. While employers cannot be expected, and are not required, to resolve all of the factors that make up the stress, they responsible for and required to address those factors which are related to work and the organisation of work.

3. Legal Duty of the Employer

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 employers are obliged to conduct a risk assessment of the hazards at work, and then to take reasonable practical steps to control those risks.

4. Risk Assessment

Employers should identify the elements of work, and work practices, that may cause stress. The levels of stress that may result from each element that is identified should then be assessed, and ways and means of reducing them identified. Employers should ensure that staff at all levels are involved in this process; so that they know the issues is taken seriously, and that the organisation can demonstrate that it has examined the risks of stress. Across the whole organisation.

5. Stress Policy

Once the organisation has carried out a risk assessment it should produce a Stress Policy (link PAYG Policy) which is then made available and accessible to all staff. This policy needs to address how the organisation will deal with stress within the workforce.

The HSE has produced a number of pieces of advice on dealing with stress. For example, it has produced a Local Authority Circular concerning work-related stress, outlining current operational policy. This also contains guidance on how enforcement officers should deal with this issue. This is primarily aimed at the Public sector, but the information it contains may be useful to the Private sector too, setting out a manner in which the problem of work-related stress can be addressed. 

6. Summary

The failure to deal with stress may leave the employer open to prosecution under the relevant Health and Safety law, and to possible constructive dismissal claims from employees. It is also possible that the stress may lead to depression, which may expose the employer to risks of claims of disability discrimination if the employee is dismissed because of the stress, or the employer fails to make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s work, workplace, or work practices. In some circumstances there may be liability for a personal injury claim when an employee has been harmed through stress at work. Therefore employers must regard their duties to combat stress in the workplace very seriously, and introduce and properly implement a Stress Policy (seePAYG Policy) to identify and counter the risks of and problems caused by stress in the workplace. 

 

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