Stress in the workplace - as an employer, what can you do about it?

    Stress in the workplace - as an employer, what can you do about it?

    An estimated 57% of all working days lost to ill-health are due to stress, depression or anxiety *. Stress is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence and perhaps, unsurprisingly, employees point to high workloads, long hours and their boss’ management style as the key triggers.

    What is the definition of work-related stress?

    Work-related stress is defined as 'a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.' *

    What are the causes of stress at work?

    According to the Health and Safety Executive, there are six main causes of work-related stress:

    • demands
    • control
    • support
    • relationships
    • role
    • change

    How to recognise workplace stress

    Training on how to recognise and manage stress in the workplace will help employers be on the lookout for possible symptoms of stress, such as:

    • slips in performance,
    • employees working excessive hours, or
    • perhaps an employee who has lost interest in their work.

    What are your obligations as an employer to manage stress?

    Put simply, health and safety legislation obliges you as an employer to assess the risk of stress and take steps to reduce it. Stress can lead to a variety of other medical complaints, not least anxiety and depression.

    Given the very wide definition of ‘disability’ at law (which often encompasses these sorts of illnesses), employers are potentially exposed to claims of discrimination, not to mention a constructive dismissal argument where the employer has failed to deal with the issue properly.

    There’s a reason in itself to take it seriously!

    What is the employer's duty of care?

    Employers should ensure that they actively manage absence, whether it is one day here or there or long term. ‘Return to work’ interviews are an ideal opportunity to find out the reason for the absence and establish whether there is anything that the employer can do to help.

    Ensuring an open culture in which employees feel supported will help to demonstrate that as an employer you have taken the steps you need to take.

    Some simple adjustments to the employee’s work might relieve the stress, for example, adjusting working hours or the delegation of certain duties. If a particular issue is identified, Occupational Health involvement might be required.

    Read more: Mental health in the workplace: an employer's quick guide

    Whilst no-one wants to end up in front of an Employment Tribunal, being able to demonstrate that you acted reasonably is crucial to defending claims. Prevention is better than cure but training your managers to identify stress at an early stage and encouraging them to tackle it is likely to reduce problems in the long run.

    If you need help dealing with stress-related absence or any other issue, talk to us.

    *Work-related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain 2018 (pdf)
    Health and Safety Executive


    [Originally published in May 2017; updated in March 2019]

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