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Protecting employees and managing stress in the workplace

Amongst the statistics reported this Mental Health Awareness Week, are estimates that mental health issues and in particular stress in the workplace, cost the UK economy £100billion each year. Nick Rowe, Head of Employment law at Lodders, explains what actions employers can take to protect their employees and manage levels of stress in the workplace.

A survey by Investors in People, the awarding body for people management, found that over 77% of workers in the West Midlands have experienced stress at work and 33% have considered leaving their job because of it. So, what is stress?

The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as the ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’, whether this is at home or at work. Stress is a reaction, and will not normally amount to an illness in itself, although it may result in or be a trigger for other illnesses. The effects of stress are shown in physical and mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease.

Stress in the workplace – what does it look like?

The difference between pressure and stress has long been a source of much debate. Whilst it is healthy for staff to have challenges at work, and increased pressure can improve performance and job satisfaction, too much pressure can have an adverse effect on health. Stress caused by our lives outside of work can also compound pressure at work and result in increased stress level in the workplace.

Employers often find it difficult to identify staff that are under stress, particularly when factors external to the workplace are involved.

Common signs of stress include:

  • Declining or inconsistent performance
  • Loss of motivation
  • Poor memory
  • Increased time at work
  • Absenteeism
  • Reduced social contact
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Over-reactions to problems.

Managing stress in the workplace – what can you do?

ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, has produced a booklet to assist managers in promoting positive mental health at work. This identifies the following factors which it suggests employers can control when it comes to mental health at work (all of which can contribute to stress):

  • Workload
  • Work variety
  • Work relationships
  • Involvement
  • Culture of disclosure
  • Communication

Click here to view the full guide

As an employer, you run an increased risk of stress-related claims should you not take action to manage the effects of stress on your employees. Employers should consider, indeed they should be seen to consider, the impact of stress in the workplace. This might include:

  • Carrying out a stress audit
  • Using return-to-work interviews after sickness absence, performance appraisals and employee surveys to identify any underlying stress-related reason for absence or poor performance
  • Training managers to recognise situations likely to cause stress and to identify the symptoms of stress and how to manage it
  • Implementing a stress at work policy, which should make it clear the employer takes the issue seriously, and set out guidance on how employees should deal with the effects of stress and how and with whom they can raise concerns
  • Avoiding unreasonable demands being made on employees by prioritising workloads and appropriate delegation of duties
  • Providing support through an employee assistance programme or occupational health service, or providing independent confidential counselling.

Anti-stress policies – do you need one?

Whilst an anti-stress policy isn’t a document which employers are legally obliged to provide, an effectively implemented policy could help to mitigate the amount of stress and number of stress-related illnesses within the workplace.

A stress policy is a statement explaining an employer’s attitude to stress (whether resulting from acts inside or outside the workplace). It should also set out the action it is taking to:

  • Protect the mental well-being of its staff
  • Prevent stress and mental health problems at work and explain how it will deal with those problems that may arise.

An effective policy should provide advice on the measures that will be taken to monitor and, where necessary, eradicate the effects of stress at work. This may take the form of:

  • Including stress in risk assessments – it must be clear about how stress risks are going to be assessed, how they will be carried out, and who will be responsible
  • Training for managers and staff to raise awareness and develop skills
  • Clear and open channels of communication and effective methods of investigating reported workplace incidents or behaviour giving rise to stress
  • Internal and external sources of support for employees suffering from stress. (Internally – provision of training, support for managers etc. and externally – employee assistance schemes)
  • Reasonable adjustments to job roles and working conditions to accommodate disabled employees or reduce causes of stress, where possible and necessary.

Anti-stress policies – are they enough?

Having an anti-stress policy should not be the only part of an employer’s approach to dealing with workplace stress. It is important to ensure that an employer who introduces an anti-stress policy has effective means of supporting any commitments made in the policy.

Additionally, in making commitments to address stress as an issue in the workplace, an employer should ask itself if it provides relevant training on how to identify the signs of stress and deal with cases of stress? This training could be provided to all staff.

Legal obligations on employers

All employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees; they have a duty to see that reasonable care is taken to provide them with a safe place of work, safe tools and equipment, and a safe system of working.

Additionally, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA) imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (SI 1999/3242) (MHSW Regulations) also impose the following duties:

  • Risk assessments – an employer needs to undertake a ‘suitable and sufficient’ assessment of the health and safety risks that employees are exposed to at work, in order to identify measures the employer needs to take to comply with the statutory requirements and prohibitions.
  • Applying the principles of prevention – where an employer implements any measures as the result of a risk assessment, the employer needs to apply the ‘principles of prevention’. Those relevant to stress are:
    • Avoiding risks
    • Combating risks at source
    • Developing a coherent overall prevention policy which covers technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships, and the influence of factors relating to the working environment
    • Giving appropriate instructions to employees.
  • Providing information to employees – an employer needs to provide ‘comprehensible and relevant information’ to employees about the risks to their health and safety identified by the assessment and the measures that will be implemented as a result.

Lodders’ team of employment solicitors offers accurate, focused and solution-based legal advice to a wide range of clients. We have forged an excellent reputation for advising SME’s, publicly owned companies, charities and other bodies in respect of all manner of employment related issues. Nick Rowe in particular has a wealth of experience in acting for employers of a ranging types and sizes on the issue of disability and absence management.

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Diane Wood, DWPR on 07887 794507 or by email

Get in touch

For more information, contact Nick Rowe on 01242 229096 or via email.