Stress at work

Over 11 million days are lost a year to work related stress.

Mental health, which includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being, can affect productivity and interaction with colleagues and clients. Pressures such as excessive workload, bullying and harassment at work can cause stress which may lead to a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety and this may in turn lead to physical conditions such as heart conditions and back pain. In the second part in our series around mental health at work, this article looks at why and how employers should tackle this issue.

Tackling stress at work

As an employer it is important to reduce workplace stress to create a happier, healthier, more productive workforce with fewer workplace disputes. This will be a huge benefit to you. Workplace stress leads to increased sickness absence, costs for replacing staff and reduced production.

Employers also have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of staff. As part of this you have an obligation to carry out a risk assessment for work-related stress and to take action to prevent employees suffering stress-related illness because of their work.

Carry out a risk assessment AND act on it

If you have more than 5 employees you have a duty to produce a written risk assessment. The HSE has identified 6 areas which can affect workplace stress – demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. These are helpful areas to cover when carrying out your risk assessment. The HSE’s sample risk assessment may provide useful guidance when you are compiling a risk assessment specific to your business.

If your risk assessment highlights areas of concern then you should work with staff to find a practical way forward. Then draw up an action plan and ensure that you review progress and evaluate how effective the action taken has been.

Dealing with an employee who is experiencing stress

Having taken steps to avoid work-related stress you may still find that employees experience stress and this may be due to issues inside or outside the workplace. Employers should support employees suffering from stress, train managers to recognise the signs, talk to the employee concerned and offer support.

Spot the signs

Potential signs of stress may be:

  • change in mood or behaviour;
  • falling standard or quantity or work;
  • increased absence or poor time keeping;
  • appearing tired or anxious;
  • increase in smoking or drinking alcohol.

Talk to the employee

Try to create a working environment where staff know they will be supported and where they feel comfortable telling their manager that they are experiencing stress. Encourage staff to tell you if they are feeling unwell.  However, there is still a stigma attached to stress and often employees feel that it is a sign of weakness to admit to be suffering from it. Instead, managers may need to be proactive and arrange a meeting with the employee to talk to them in private.  ACAS has produced a useful guide to managing sensitive conversations.

Changes to working arrangements

It is often possible to make minor changes to an employee’s working arrangements which will assist in relieving pressure. Even if the cause of the stress is not work-related you may be able to make adjustments to their working hours or allow them to take paid/unpaid time off to deal with the issues they are experiencing (such as caring for an elderly relative or having to attend medical appointments).  Again, ACAS has produced a useful guide to adjustments that can be helpful.

A manager should continue to monitor how the employee is progressing, either by scheduling formal review meetings, or informally if more appropriate.

The vast majority of employees will recover from a period of stress and return to full capacity at work. In a very few cases you may need to consider whether an employee is able to remain in their role and take them through your capability procedure. This may eventually result in dismissal.  This is a very complex issue and you should always seek legal advice before dismissing a sick employee.

Mental Health at Work Series

In our previous article Mental Health at Work – employers’ obligations – we looked at employer’s obligations where staff have mental health conditions that amount to a “disability”.

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The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.