Employers are under a legal duty to assess the risk of workplace stress for their workers and to take appropriate action to ensure their wellbeing. In addition to meeting the duty of care, employers should be concerned with the wider implications of work-related stress.
Stress can significantly impact a business and its workforce, affecting absence, performance and personnel retention rates. It can even affect the reputation of your business and employer brand. Employers should therefore take immediate action to reduce stress at work.
This comprehensive guide sets out the legal responsibilities placed on an employer in relation to the mental wellbeing of its workforce, from the statutory and common law duty of care owed to employees, to the practical and legal consequences of failing to meet this duty.
Employer’s duty of care & workplace stress
By law, an employer is under a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their workforce, so far as is reasonably practicable, including their mental wellbeing. Work-related stress is now widely recognised in the UK as a serious health and safety issue, where employers are duty bound to treat this condition like any other workplace hazard.
Work-related stress can manifest itself in a number of different ways, both physically and psychologically. Common symptoms include apathy, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, irritability, palpitations and panic attacks, or any combination of these or other symptoms. These can then often lead to long-term mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, as well as increase the risk of physical health problems, including heart disease.
As such, all employers must provide their employees with a safe and stress-free place of work. This involves a two-stage process of:
- identifying any risks to which an employee may be exposed, and
- taking appropriate measures to control these risks.
A duty also arises for employers to make reasonable adjustments for any employee suffering from a mental impairment that amounts to a disability, in this way ensuring that the individual is not substantially disadvantaged in carrying out their work. This is in addition to a duty to prevent any harassment, discrimination or victimisation in the workplace, where employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees if they fail to take action to prevent unlawful behaviour that has resulted in work-related stress.
Causes of work-related stress
Work-related stress is caused by the pressures felt by an individual as a result of their job role or the conditions in which they are required to carry out that role. There are various factors that may precipitate or contribute to work-related stress. These commonly include:
- Excessive workloads or last minute deadlines
- Working long hours or taking work home
- Undertaking too much responsibility
- Lack of career progression or job insecurity
- Lack of support from co-workers or management
- Conflict and confrontation caused by difficult working relationships
- Being exposed to bullying or harassment in the workplace
- Being discriminated against or victimised in the workplace
- Being required to work in a poor or unsafe working environment
How to manage workplace stress
The duty of care to protect employees from work-related stress imposes a number of practical obligations on an employer. These include carrying out regular risk assessments to identify any risk factors in the workplace, and putting in place proper controls to remove and reduce any such risks. However, the duty of care does not end there.
Even though an employer is entitled to expect that an employee can cope with the normal pressures of work, once it is apparent that an employee is suffering from work-related stress, or they are showing obvious signs of stress, the matter must be investigated and action taken.
In many cases, employees suffering with work-related stress may be unwilling to admit to feeling overwhelmed, so it is often up to the employer and line managers to spot the signs before it’s too late. This can often be difficult, as work-related stress can manifest itself in several different ways. Common signs and symptoms to watch out for include:
- A drop in performance at work
- An inability to carry out normal tasks or follow simple instructions
- Uncharacteristic mistakes or accidents at work
- Increased absenteeism or lateness
- A lack of engagement, motivation or enthusiasm
- A change in attitude, including cynicism or negativity
- A change in behaviour, including becoming withdrawn, sensitive or irritable
- Self-isolation or social withdrawal from co-workers
- Increased conflict and confrontations with co-workers
- Increased complaints and grievances from or about an employee
- Complaining about feeling exhausted or physical signs of fatigue
- A deterioration in appearance or personal hygiene
- Obvious weight gain or weight loss
- Signs of alcohol or substance misuse.
Once it has become obvious that an employee is suffering from work-related stress, you should not wait for a formal grievance to be submitted before conducting a workplace investigation. Steps should be taken immediately to identify the source(s) of the employee’s stress and to help alleviate the effects. The employer should also take steps to support the employee in their recovery, a process which may be prolonged and require regular reviews.
How to support employees signed off with stress
If a member of staff has been absent from work because of stress, any fit note from their GP will usually record details of the functional effects of the employee’s condition so the employee and their employer can consider ways to help them get back to work. This could include, for example, amended duties, altered hours or a phased return.
For employee’s on long-term sick leave, and where the employer has an occupational health team or access to an external provider, a referral should be made for an assessment. In this way, recommendations for recovery can be tailored to the individual’s needs in the specific context of their job role. Even for short-term cases of stress-related sick leave, seeking expert advice will not only help to prevent a recurrence of the employee’s symptoms, it will demonstrate your commitment to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your staff.
In all cases, it is important that an employee suffering from stress is given sufficient time to recuperate prior to returning to work and, on their return, they are not then subject to the same risk factors that caused or contributed to their stress in the first place. This means that you may need to review the employee’s job description, reduce their workload or hours, modify performance targets, or even transfer them into a different role.
In instances of workplace conflict, you may need to take disciplinary action against anyone responsible for bullying or harassment. You should also ensure that any employee affected by work-related stress, regardless of the cause, is regularly reviewed by their line manager or a member of HR, and they are provided with ongoing support, training or counselling.
For employees who are showing signs of stress but have continued to work rather than disclosing their symptoms to their line manager or GP, this situation will need to be handled sensitively. Using an appraisal process can provide a safe environment in which an employee may feel comfortable in discussing their mental health. However, in some cases, immediate action may need to be taken, including any decision to send the employee home to recover.
Reducing work-related stress
The legal duty to ensure the mental wellbeing of your staff not only means taking appropriate action in response to any employee who is suffering from stress, but taking steps to prevent work-related stress from becoming commonplace across your workforce.
There are several ways for employers to meet their responsibilities and fulfil their duty of care towards their employees. These could include:
Creating a culture that champions good mental health: by fostering a caring and supportive working environment, where your staff feel able to be open and honest about how they are feeling without fear of reprisals, this can help to keep work-related stress in check.
Creating a healthy work/life balance for your staff: by showing that you value whole person wellbeing, this will help you to promote a less stressful and pressured environment. This could include limiting overtime, ensuring staff use their full annual leave entitlement and offering flexible working arrangements.
Implementing a wellbeing programme: by introducing wellbeing initiatives, such as lifestyle assessments, mental health days and discounted gym memberships, this will show your employees you care about their health and happiness, in this way helping to reduce levels of stress and increase levels of engagement.
Providing mental health training: by training line managers in how to spot the signs of work-related stress, you can help to prevent these symptoms from escalating into something more serious. Training can also provide managers with proactive ways to help alleviate stress factors or provide support for employees showing signs of stress.
Introducing a zero-tolerance bullying policy: by putting in place a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and harassment at work, this can help to safeguard your staff and reduce the risk of stress arising from conflict and confrontation with co-workers or management.
Supporting employee mental health needn’t be expensive for an employer, where there are various cost-effective ways in which you can provide your employees with a safe and stress-free working environment – starting with a caring and supportive approach to stress.
Failing in your duty
Work-related stress is a widely recognised health and safety issue, and one that all employers must proactively address if they are to comply with UK health and safety legislation. Any failure to take appropriate action to prevent work-related stress or to support an employee suffering with stress, could have far-reaching consequences for both you and your business.
From a practical perspective, the consequences of work-related stress can include:
- High levels of absenteeism or the loss of valuable members of staff
- Lack of employee engagement, low performance and lost productivity
- An increased incidence of errors and accidents at work
- A negative impact on the reputation of your business and employer brand
From a legal perspective, an employer who has failed to identify and take reasonable steps to prevent work-related stress can find themselves exposed to claims for constructive dismissal, where employees have felt forced to resign due to stress. Equally, the dismissal of an employee on grounds of capability because of stress may result in a claim for unfair dismissal.
In theory, you can lawfully dismiss an employee on long-term sick leave on the basis that they are are no longer able to do their job. However, the onus will be on you to show why you were unable to make any reasonable adjustments to their working conditions, where any failure to do so could also result in a claim for unlawful disability discrimination.
By spotting the signs and taking steps to reduce the effects of work-related stress, employers can minimise its impact in the workplace and avoid expensive legal action.
DavidsonMorris’ human resource specialists work with employers on all aspects of workforce management, employee wellbeing and engagement. Working closely with our team of employment lawyers, we offer a holistic solution to support with legal risk management while optimising performance and personnel welfare. For advice on a specific issue, speak to our experts today.
Workplace stress FAQs
What is employer's duty of care?
All employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff. This duty of care means that employers must identify any health and safety risks to which employees may be exposed at work and take appropriate measures to control any workplace risks.
Can I sue my employer for stress and anxiety?
An employee can sue their employer for any breach of the duty of care to ensure their health, safety and welfare, including their mental wellbeing. An employee suffering from a long-term mental health condition amounting to a disability may also sue for unlawful discrimination where their employer fails to take reasonable steps to ensure they are not substantially disadvantaged in doing their job.
What duty of care should an employer show if you are absent with stress?
The statutory duty of care that is owed by an employer to its employees to ensure their health, safety and welfare includes their mental wellbeing. If an employee is absent from work with stress, an employer must take steps to alleviate the causes and support their return to work.
Can I sue my employer for lack of duty of care?
In theory, it is possible for an employee to sue their employer for a lack of duty of care, for example, where an employee is suffering from work-related stress and the employer has failed to take steps to prevent this. In practice, this will often arise in the context of a constructive dismissal claim where an employee has felt forced to resign because of work-related stress.
Last updated: 2 February 2021