According to a recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Labour Force Survey, published in October 2018, 15.4 million working days were lost last year due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. As April is National Stress Awareness Month, it is an appropriate time to examine the reasons why employees are stressed at work and what measures employers can take to alleviate this.
Stress at work can be a trigger for severe mental as well as physical illnesses and can lead to serious conditions if not managed properly or kept under control.
There are numerous causes of stress in the workplace, the most common being:
- Excessive workloads;
- Relationship breakdown with managers and/or colleagues;
- Lack of administrative and/or managerial support;
- Bullying in the office;
- Personal issues outside of work.
The HSE’s survey found that stress, depression and anxiety were more prevalent in public service industries, such as education; health and social care; and public administration and defence. Perhaps this is not surprising given recent pressures on these industries, owing to funding cuts and limited resources.
Read the Signs
ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) guidance on stress at work highlights five signs that managers should watch out for to help them spot stressed out staff:
- Changes in the person’s usual behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues;
- Changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks;
- Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed;
- Changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking alcohol;
- An increase in sickness absences and/or turning up late to work.
The guidance also explains how employers should approach staff who seem stressed:
- Have the initial conversation in a private space, where they will not be disturbed.
- Be patient and allow them as much time as they need to talk about it.
- Consider the causes of stress and how it relates to workplace relationships. It may be beneficial to involve Human Resources or a more senior manager and allow a work colleague or trade union representative to accompany them at any meetings.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (“the Regulations”), employers must assess the nature and scale of health risks at work, including stress, by way of risk assessment. Employers with five or more employees need to record the significant findings of the risk assessment. Under the Regulations, employers should implement any necessary measures, appoint competent people to implement the same and arrange for appropriate information and training.
The Court of Appeal case of Sutherland v Hatton (2002) remains good case law to support that, in civil negligence cases, employers owe a duty of care to their employees to take reasonably practicable steps to maintain a safe workplace.
What can employers do to prevent work-related stress occurring in the first place?
- Offer training to supervisors and managers to enable them to be able to recognise and deal with employees who are suffering from stress;
- Introduce initiatives to help employees deal with stress such as meditation, coaching or counselling;
- Implement a clear return to work policy following a period of sickness absence due to stress;
- Consider making reasonable adjustments to alleviate the causes of stress to employees;
- Consider a referral to Occupational Health.
Employers would do well to remember that, with mental health in particular, every employee’s case will be different and a one size fits all approach may not resolve the issue for that particular individual.