Tackling Workplace Stress

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Whilst a certain amount of pressure is normal in every job, when that pressure becomes excessive it results in stress.  Stress can not only impact on your work productivity and performance but it can also have a debilitating effect on your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as on your relationships and home life.

Tackling Workplace Stress

We are increasingly finding more employees coming to us for legal advice who are suffering burnout or are on long term sick leave because of work place stress.  Here we outline your legal rights and the practical steps you can take to deal with stress at work.

What is stress?    

Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or demands put upon them.  Frequently cited causes of stress at work include work overload, long hours, lack of support and fear of redundancy.  Outside influences, such as relationship issues or illness, can also result in stress and affect a person’s ability to cope with the normal pressures of the workplace.

Whatever the causes of stress, it is important not to suffer in silence.  Whilst stress is not an illness in itself, excessive or prolonged stress can lead to mental and/or physical illness.

What are your legal rights if you have workplace stress? 

There is no specific law aimed at workplace stress, but employers do have duties under common law, statutory law and under the employment contract to have regard for the health and safety of their staff.

In common law, an employer is under a duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace which includes providing a safe system of work.  If an employer breaches this duty of care and the employee suffers an injury as a result, this can give rise to a personal injury claim.

Under statutory law, the main legislation is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which imposes a duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees.  Employers also are under a statutory duty to carry out risk assessments to identify, eliminate or reduce any risks to their employees’ health and safety. Stress is one such risk that must be assessed.

In the context of the employment contract, it is an implied term that an employer will take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of its employees at work.  It is also a fundamental term of the employment contract that an employer will not do anything to undermine the implied duty of trust and confidence.  An increasingly common stress related claim is that of constructive dismissal where an employee argues they were forced to resign because of their employer’s breach of one or both of these implied terms.

Employers also have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to the work or workplace where an employee is disabled, which can include employees who are suffering from certain stress related illnesses if the illness amounts to a disability.   An employee may have a claim for disability discrimination if their employer fails to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace to alleviate their stress.

Practical steps towards dealing with stress at work

Whilst it can be helpful to know your legal rights, the first step to addressing work place stress is to bring the matter to the attention of your employer.  There can be a tendency to keep quiet and soldier on in the fear that you will be perceived as weak.  However, not only will this fail to resolve anything but could take a serious toll on your health.  It is also no good hoping your employer may notice – your employer is likely to be unaware you are suffering from stress and so can’t help you if you don’t tell them.

The best way to raise the issue is at an informal meeting with your manager or HR to try and find solutions and support.   To prepare for such a discussion, consider if there are any adjustments that can be made to help you and what you want the outcome to be.  Examples of what you can ask for could be:

  • additional training or support in relation to your work overload;
  • shifting deadlines/setting realistic deadlines;
  • clarification of your exact roles and responsibilities – ask for this to be in writing;
  • regular work meetings or a new reporting structure;
  • reduced hours of work or other flexible working arrangement (e.g. working occasionally from home).

 

If you are a member of a union, contact your union representative to ask what support they can provide.  Finally, be sure to confirm any discussions you have in writing even at the early stages.

What steps should your employer take?

While your employer may not have an easy solution for your being overworked or under too much pressure, once they are made aware that you are suffering from work related stress, they are required to take reasonable steps to prevent it.  The key word here is “reasonable”.  What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances but it will involve considering what changes or adjustments can be made to improve the situation.  For some employers, particularly small employers, this can be a difficult assessment to make because of budgetary restraints, the need to take account of the welfare of other employees (who may have to take on extra work) and the need to maintain standards of service.    Nonetheless, your employer cannot ignore the situation because if it does so and your stress leads you to suffer physical or mental harm, they will potentially be liable.

What if your employer fails to take action?

If you feel that nothing or little is being done to address your situation, you may wish to raise a formal grievance by following your employer’s procedures.   This tends to have the effect of focusing an employer’s mind on resolving the situation.

However, if after going down the formal grievance route, you still believe your employer has not done enough to resolve the situation then you may want to take legal advice before doing anything further.   Your employer may be in breach of their health and safety duties to you under statute or common law and if so, you may have a potential claim against them.

Summary  

Seeking help and support at the earliest opportunity is the key to addressing work place stress.  Not only should it result in improvements to your working life but reducing workplace stress will benefit your employer in the long run.  After all, stress is one of the main causes of sickness absence and is responsible for over 11 million days lost at work a year according to the Health and Safety Executive.  If, however, stress at work is not managed properly and allowed to continue unchecked, employees do ultimately have legal rights that they can rely on.

If you are suffering from workplace stress and you feel your employer is not doing enough to help you, Real Employment Law Advice can advise you on the best way to approach the problem and, ultimately, if the situation cannot be resolved, your best legal course of action.

A blog post provided by Miranda Amos, Solicitor for Real Employment Law Advice

Category: B Positive