Workplace Stress - An Employer's Duties

The Chartered, Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) has published its nineteenth annual survey, 'Health and Well-Being at Work', which was carried out in November 2018 in partnership with Simplyhealth. This found that 37 per cent of the businesses surveyed reported an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, with heavy workloads and poor management style cited as the major causes. A third of organisations include mental ill health among their top three causes of short-term absence, continuing a growing trend noted last year.

The results of the survey confirm the rising culture of 'presenteeism' in UK workplaces, with most organisations doing nothing to discourage it, even though evidence points to presenteesim being potentially more harmful for individuals and businesses than sickness absence. A majority of organisations have also observed some form of 'leaveism' in the last year, with over a third reporting that employees use time off, such as holiday, when they are in fact unwell. These two trends could be contributing to a reported drop in sickness absence levels (5.9 days per employee) while helping to mask fundamental organisational issues that could be affecting people's health and well-being at work, such as unmanageable workloads.

Whilst 61 per cent of those surveyed agree that employee well-being is on the agenda of senior management in their organisation (compared with 55 per cent last year), only a third report that senior leaders encourage a focus on mental well-being through their actions and behaviour. An increased proportion cite management style as a cause of stress, 43 per cent this year compared with 32 per cent in last year's report.

Only one in ten organisations have a standalone mental health policy for employees, although a further third incorporate mental health within another policy and one in five reported that they are in the process of developing a policy. Most of those surveyed are taking some action to manage employee mental health, with an increase in awareness of the issues, although less than half of organisations provide mental health training.

Overall, half of respondents felt that their organisation is effective at supporting staff with mental ill health and/or that they actively promote good mental well-being. Less than a third agree that senior leaders encourage a focus on mental well-being through their actions and behaviour, which is similar to last year's finding.

The number of organisations that reported seeing an increase in stress-related absence and mental health problems indicates that these continue to give cause for concern.

Work-related stress occurs when a worker reacts in an adverse way to excessive pressures or demands in the workplace. It can affect a person's mental and physical health. A distinction can be made, however, between abnormal pressure that is beyond the worker's ability to cope as distinct from normal pressures of work that an employer is entitled to expect people to handle without adverse effects.

Dealing with stress is a difficult issue for employers. In addition to specific duties under health and safety legislation, such as carrying out risk assessments/stress audits, they owe their employees a common law duty to take reasonable care to safeguard their health and safety, and this includes a duty to control stress levels at work. Employers are only in breach of their duty if they have failed to take reasonable steps in the circumstances to prevent the stress. It is foreseeable injury arising from an employer's breach of duty that gives rise to a liability, and foreseeability depends on what the employer knows (or ought reasonably to know) about an individual employee. However, taking positive steps to safeguard the well-being of workers, such as ensuring that the working environment is free from the sort of pressures that can have an adverse effect, makes good business sense as doing so is likely to have a beneficial impact on the productivity and efficiency of a business.

Larger employers should make sure that managers are trained to recognise the signs of stress and know how to respond, and that they conduct themselves in a way that minimises stress and promotes a happy working environment. Employers should be aware that they can be found vicariously liable for the actions of their employees in certain circumstances.

An employer who is actively managing potential causes of work-related stress and preventing day-to-day pressures from becoming excessive is unlikely to be found in breach of their duty. The legal duty to carry out assessments so that risks posed by work-related stress can be managed means that it is important to examine your workplace to spot the signs of existing work-related stress and to identify any potential sources of stress that could put employees at risk. These assessments should be kept under regular review. Do you, for example, monitor employees' working hours to make sure they have appropriate rest breaks? Do sickness absence figures or staff turnover rates reveal a problem with high stress levels that should be tackled? Do members of staff feel under pressure to come to work when they should really be off sick? Do you have policies in place to identify and deal with any instances of bullying and harassment?

Employers have a legal duty to consult with duly elected safety representatives of employees on health and safety matters, or with employees themselves where there are no formally elected representatives, and there is no exemption from this requirement for 'small' employers. However, you might also consider carrying out periodic employee satisfaction surveys seeking views on workplace morale and attitudes to stress, and asking for suggestions on ways of combating any problems.

If you become aware that an employee is suffering from work-related stress, you are required to take reasonable steps to prevent it. It is often helpful to agree an action plan with the employee concerned. Case law suggests that an employer who offers a confidential advice service to employees suffering from stress, with referral to appropriate counselling or treatment services, is less likely to be found to have failed in their duty of care, provided reasonable steps are taken at the same time to alleviate the problem – for example by reducing that person's workload or making changes to the way they work.

Employers are reminded of their specific duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to the work or workplace where an employee is disabled, the definition of which can include persons who are experiencing mental health problems caused by stress where their illness is having a substantial and adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, the effect is long-term and the condition is likely to recur.

The message to employers is clear: stress cannot be ignored. It is important to have in place a stand-alone stress policy that is proactive in promoting the well-being of workers. If and when stress-related complaints are made, they must be treated seriously, investigated fully and appropriate action taken at once. Active intervention is required. Monitor the situation to see if the remedial action is working and continue to do so until the situation is resolved. Make any changes necessary to prevent a recurrence where possible.

The Health and Safety Executive has comprehensive guidance on work-related stress.