Work related stress: your legal duties

Stress at work is rising, and remains one of the most common causes of long- and short-term sickness for manual and non-manual employees. Two-fifths of organisations reported an increase in stress-related absence over the previous year, rising to more than half in the public sector.

Despite its prevalence, both employees and employers can be reluctant to engage with stress at work. Employees find the topic emotionally difficult, fearing that they will be seen as unable to cope, and employers may be wary of raising issues which could create management problems.

Many people confuse stress with pressure, or with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In dealing with stress in the workplace, the Chief Medical Officer’s report for 2013 warns against employers carrying out stress audits because they risk modifying employees’ expectations, and could lead to increased reports of mental illness. Instead, the report recommends implementing measures, such as flexible working hours, which increase employees’ control.

Legal Duty on Employers

All employers have a legal responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees, which includes assessing and minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury. Employers are responsible for action both at board level and among their employees, and failure to assess risks, put in place or implement a policy to deal with stress in the workplace may result in enforcement action by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), direct financial costs including sick pay, sickness cover or the cost of settling civil claims, and indirect costs as a result of low workplace morale or lost productivity.

HSE Guidance

The HSE has produced extensive guidance and various tools on its website for employers and employees seeking to deal with stress at work. The guidance identifies six risk factors as influencing work-related stress:

  • The demands placed on employees
  • The control which employees have over their work
  • Whether adequate information and support is received from colleagues and superiors
  • Unacceptable behaviour such as bullying
  • How far employees understand their role and responsibilities
  • The extent to which employees are consulted and informed about organisational changes.

Conclusion

KS HeadShot no hatDo not be stressed by stress! Dealing successfully with work-related stress requires clear leadership from employers and engagement on the part of employees, but the increasing costs of failing to deal with this difficult and emotive area mean that ignoring it is not an option. Employers should look at it methodically, which can help remove the excess emotion that often parades side by side with stress management programmes.

If you would like further advice or help, please contact our Health and Safety Management team on  01302 341 344.

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