Stress in the Workplace

Stress in the Workplace is categorised as an adverse reaction to excessive pressure. A person who is experiencing stress can demonstrate other physical and psychological conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

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Although pressure is a natural part of the workplace which can prove beneficial by improving an employee’s performance, too much pressure can prove to be harmful and lead to stress.

Those in the public sector are three times more likely to differ from stress in the workplace compared to those in the private sector. Figures show that 1 in 5 (or roughly 500,000 employees) suffer with work related stress. Therefore this can have a significant impact on the Company if it is not handled well. For example, it can increase sickness absence levels and decrease productivity. 

Increased levels of stress can contribute to anxiety and depression. Common signs of stress can include:

  • Loss of motivation or commitment to work;
  • Reduced performance;
  • Reduced contact with people in the workplace;
  • Crying or undue sensitivity;
  • Over-reaction to issues;
  • Aggressive behaviour.

Typical Causes Of stress in the Workplace

Whilst there are many factors that can contribute to stress, the following are the most common and can be directly influenced by the Company;

  • Unmanageable workload;
  • Bullying;
  • Lack of support;
  • Negative working environment.

Outside Influences

While an employer cannot influence these factors, they can have a significant impact on the workplace and;

  • Bereavement;
  • Relationship or family issues;
  • Disability;
  • Financial worries.

Legal Obligations of the Employer

While there is no specific statute that imposes an obligation on the employer regarding stress, the Health and Safety at Work Act imposes a duty to ensure that the wellbeing of employees is maintained. Most of the obligations surrounding stress in the workplace comes from case law (common law) which states that reasonable steps must be taken to limit the stress on employees.

Whilst having a policy that deals with stress in the workplace is both important and beneficial, it needs to be acted upon. An employer will need to act upon any findings in an appropriate and timely way as an employee suffering from stress may develop depression or anxiety. The Occupational Health can assist with introducing any anti-stress policies.

Is Depression a Disability?

Under the Equality Act 2010, a disability is defined as a long term condition that has substantial adverse effects on normal day-to-day activities. Therefore, under certain circumstances depression may be classified as a disability. This will be determined by the severity of the depression and whether the employee is currently receiving treatment.

If the depression is considered to be a disability, this means that the employee could be entitled to make a claim if the employer discriminates because of their illness. This can be determined by the engagement of an occupational health assessor who can produce a report containing recommendations for the reasonable adjustments that will need to be made.

Potential Tribunal Claims An Employee May Bring

Failure to make reasonable adjustments

If it has been determined that the employee has depression and it is to be classified as a disability, an employer has an obligation to make reasonable adjustments. Failure to do so, could result in a claim for disability discrimination.

The adjustments that are put in place need to be practicable and effective. They must be proportionate to the size and resources available, whilst ensuring that it doesn’t cause high levels of disruption to the Company itself.

Additional Claims…

A person that is suffering from stress due to their working conditions may look to argue that the stress is due to behaviours by the employer that are so serious that it is a breach of contract.

If an employee has been signed off sick from work due to stress, the same rules apply for a physical illness. Terminating their employment may result in them being able to bring a claim against the Company for unfair dismissal.

Practical Steps For Employers to Take​​​​

When looking to try and reduce the levels of stress in the workplace, it may be useful to consider the following:

  • Provide staff training so that they can recognise symptoms of stress;
  • Conduct risk assessments (or stress audits) to identify any internal issues;
  • Avoid imposing any unnecessary stress triggers or unreasonable demands.
  • Consider flexible working arrangements;
  • Look at setting up new channels of communication (regular team or individual meetings can help);
  • Introduce any reasonable adjustments to maintain the mental wellbeing of employees;
  • Ensure that a return-to-work interview is completed after sickness absence to identify any needs of the employee.
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