Stress is one of the biggest problems in the workplace, with the cost to the British economy being estimated at around £4 billion each year due to both long and short-term absence, lower productivity and poor customer service. Recent research shows that one in four employees are in a near-constant state of stress. If employers can reduce stress through effective people management, it will reduce their costs and drive business growth. We consider the most common mistakes employers make when dealing with stress and most importantly how they can be avoided.
Employers need to be clear on the difference between pressure and stress. It is healthy for employees to have challenges to meet and a reasonable amount of pressure can in fact have a beneficial effect in improving performance and job satisfaction. However, too much pressure can be harmful to health and result in stress-related claims.
The common early warning signs of stress at work include: loss of motivation; individuals working extra-long hours; poor timekeeping; uncharacteristic displays of emotion; isolation; an increase in poor decision making; missing deadlines or poor planning.
Managers frequently choose not to speak to employees about such concerns, hoping to avoid confrontation or that the matter will resolve itself. Unfortunately this rarely happens and employers should encourage management to be proactive and to speak to employees in order to devise a strategy to help resolve the problems.
Failing to use the ‘return to work’ interview to identify any under-lying stress related reason for absence or performance
Whilst an employee returning to work after a period of stress-related sickness absence, without any further explanation, is usually indicating that he or she is fit to resume work, employers should still consider any adjustments necessary to their workload or working arrangements to facilitate their return. Otherwise, an early return to work could subsequently result in a relapse which does not benefit the employee or the employer in the long term.
Failing to carry out an effective stress risk assessment
Employers have a legal duty to assess the risk of work-related stress and to take measures to control these risks. An employer who does not take action to manage the effects of stress on its employees will not obtain the best out of those employees and will also run an increased risk of stress-related claims. Employers should consider, and importantly be seen to consider, the impact of stress in the workplace.
The priority should always be to ascertain the hazards which usually revolve around the six “risk factors” identified by the Health and Safety Executive. These are demands, control, relationships, change, role and support. Qualitative methods (such as informal talks with staff, performance appraisals, focus groups, return to work interviews following sickness absence) or quantitative methods (for example, collecting and monitoring sickness absence data, performance data, turnover of staff and questionnaires) aid the process of identifying these hazards.
Taking into account the stress risk factors, employers need to then consider who is most likely to be harmed and how. The risks should be evaluated and action taken by communicating with employees to confirm the nature of the problems and to develop ideas for solutions. Findings should be recorded and an action plan developed which sets clear goals to work towards and which can be used as a benchmark against which progress can be measured. Employers will also need to monitor and review the assessment at appropriate intervals.
Failing to act once on notice of potential stress-related illness
The most critical ‘take-home message’ to come out of recent civil claims for compensation for suffering work-related stress is that where stress is ‘foreseeable’, action must have been taken by the employer to limit the problem.
If any stress-related factors come to light during the course of an individual’s employment i.e. at performance interviews, in the course of disciplinary proceedings or at appraisals, the employer will be on notice of the health risks and therefore needs to take reasonable steps to remove that risk. This should certainly involve the employee in the process by asking what steps could be taken to remove or reduce the risk.
Where the stress relates to poor supervision, employers should take appropriate steps to train managers and supervisors. Where stress is identified as caused by inadequate training, provide such training as employees require to enable them to perform their duties.
Where the stress relates to others in the workplace, for example, bullying from colleagues or “robust” management style, remedial steps will almost certainly involve discussions with the third party. Consequential disciplinary action may also be necessary, depending on the results of any investigation.
Failing to understand the role of counselling services and occupational health
Whether the employer makes available to the employee counselling or occupational health services is not necessarily of itself sufficient to avoid liability in stress-related claims. Whether the provision of such services would assist an employer to discharge its duty of care would depend on their relevance to the facts of the case. Employers should bear in mind that counselling sessions are relatively cheap and will prove cost effective particularly if it prevents employees taking short or long-term sickness absences due to workplace stress. Subject to the employer’s resources, offering counselling services as part of a supportive framework for tackling workplace stress is viewed as good industrial practice and can help achieve a positive outcome for all of those involved.
Employers should remember that if an employee is referred for a health assessment and the occupational health provider recommends that an employee is given a further assessment, or a more specialised medical examination, then an employer may be found to have failed in its duty of care if those recommendations are not acted upon.
It is important to remember that it is not a case of “ticking the boxes” and individual circumstances should be given individual consideration.