Workplace Wellness: Embracing Stress Awareness Month

This April is Stress Awareness Month, which aims to increase awareness of both the contributory factors and solutions to workplace stress. Although much has been done to tackle this modern-day epidemic, April should serve as a reminder for employers of their ongoing legal obligations to continue to support their employees’ mental wellbeing. Not least because stress remains one of the biggest contributors to workplace absences, demonstrated by a recent CIPD survey, which confirmed that 76% of respondents had taken time off due to stress in 2023.

Employers’ duties under the law

All employers are under a statutory duty to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of their staff, due to provisions in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which also covers the protection of employees’ mental wellbeing. Consequently, employers are required to identify and mitigate any health and safety risks in the workplace. With work-related stress being widely acknowledged as posing a health and safety issue to workers, employers are duty bound to treat stress like any other workplace hazard.

There is a further duty imposed on employers by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. These regulations require all employers to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the health and safety risks of their employees, including conducting a thorough workplace risk assessment. Within this assessment, employers should work with their employees to identify the risks of stress, discuss and decide how to remove or reduce these risks and mutually agree on what steps need be taken to achieve this.

Making reasonable adjustments

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities, which includes mental health conditions, ensuring that they are not disadvantaged in the workplace. Workplace stress alone does not meet the criteria under the Equality Act such that it amounts to a disability. However, employers should be mindful that when an illness begins as workplace stress, it can very quickly develop into other, often related, mental health illnesses such as depression or anxiety (among others), which are more likely to be classified as a disability, if the condition is long-lasting and has a substantial effect (or potential to have a substantial effect) on the employee’s day-to-day lives.

Reasonable adjustments can include changes to employees working hours, the duties they undertake as part of their work or providing additional support to them. It is also important to remember that every job and employee is different, so what works in one situation might not working in another. It’s vital to identify each employee’s needs and implement a strategic support system to provide them with effective assistance should the need arise, including, if needed, appropriate referrals to Occupational Health or implementing other steps to manage their absence/ illness in conjunction with the employee.

Risks facing employers for non-compliance

If any employer neglects their duty to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their employees, they could be sued by employees for a breach of their duty of care. Furthermore, if an employer fails to provide reasonable adjustments for employees suffering from stress, resulting in employees being disadvantaged at work, an affected employee may pursue a claim of disability discrimination. Such disputes may end up at the Employment Tribunal, resulting in costly proceedings, potential compensation payments and reputational damage for the employer.

There is also a risk to employers of an employee bringing a personal injury claim. For such a claim to succeed, an employee will need to show that their employer has breached the duty of care owed to the employee, that this breach has caused the employee an injury, which includes psychiatric injuries, and that it was reasonably foreseeable that the employer’s breach of duty would result in the psychiatric injury suffered. Foreseeability depends on what the employer knows, or ought to know about the employee in question. Usually, an employer is entitled to assume that employees are up to the normal pressures of the job, unless the employer knows of a particular problem or vulnerability.

Ways to reduce stress in the workplace

Employers should approach stress management proactively, focusing on early intervention before the problem becomes significant or an employee is signed off sick due to stress. Aside from providing support to employees when an issue arises, there are a number of ways that employers can reduce stress in the workplace. These could include:

  • Spotting the warning signs – employers need to be aware that employees suffering from stress may not want to report that to their managers for fear of potential recrimination. As such, employers should think about whether they see behaviour changes or other indicators, which might indicate an employee is suffering from stress or potential burnout, rather than relying on employees to inform them;
  • Leading from the front – employers should be mindful of their own well-being and stress levels as employees often follow the example of their supervisors;
  • Offering an Employees Assistance Programme – this offers a confidential support through a professional counsellor, without the need for employees to face long waiting times and expensive bills. Further, an employer who offers a confidential advice service is unlikely to be found in breach of duty, unless unreasonable demands have been placed on the individual employee in circumstances where the risk of harm was clear;
  • Scheduling regular check-ins with employee – this enables employers to keep abreast of any changes to an employee’s mental wellbeing, meaning issues can be tackled earlier. This includes discussing workloads and deadlines, ensuring an employee isn’t at risk of becoming overwhelmed by work;
  • Promoting work-life balance – this can include offering remote working options, compressed workweeks or flexible hours, focused on accommodating an employee’s individual needs and responsibilities outside of work.

Concluding points

Stress Awareness Month serves as a reminder to employers that they need to actively support and enhance the mental well-being of their employees. Crucially, strategies for reducing workplace stress should be implemented all year round and not end just because April does! Ultimately, employers need to make efforts to reduce the stigma associated with stress – employers should create a culture whereby employees feel supported and comfortable with raising issues that may be causing them stress and where managers are spotting issues in advance. Employers who sustain their commitment to reducing workplace stress stand to reap significant benefits and sidestep potential liabilities that could arise, such as protracted absences, employees suffering burnout, higher attrition rates and, in a worst case scenario Tribunal or court claims.

How we can help

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised within this article or require assistance to ensure that your workplace is doing it all it can to reduce work-based stress, please ​contact us to speak to a member of our Employment Team.

Alistair McArthur
Partner, Head of Employment
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This reflects the law and market position at the date of publication and is written as a general guide. It does not contain definitive legal advice, which should be sought in relation to a specific matter.

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