Employers’ obligations around employee stress

The vast majority of people deal with stress at work. Some of us experience more of it than others, but it is certainly present for most of us.

Stress is what happens to a person when they are faced with excessive pressure – whether that’s being put on them from work superiors or themselves.

Most workplaces cause an element of stress. However, if members of staff are suffering from particularly high levels of stress and an employer does not engage with them to find out what is causing these elevated levels – or wilfully ignores what’s happening and continues to exacerbate the issue – then they may be breaching their duty of care to their employees.

Causes of stress

Stress is an individual thing. People are affected by stress differently and different triggers prompt stress reactions in different individuals. Something that causes you stress may not result in the same reaction for someone else.

However, there are some fairly common stressors that tend to be present in many workplaces. A study by Dr Susan Michie, of the Royal Free and University College Medical School, pointed to the likely causes of stress involving unpredictable, uncontrollable, uncertain and unfamiliar situations. Dr Michie also highlighted situations that involve conflict, loss or performance expectations as common stressors.

In the workplace, these stressors could manifest as deadlines, long commutes or job insecurity. She went on to highlight a number of key work factors that cause stress:

  • Effects of work on personal lives
  • Lack of control over work
  • Lack of participation in decision making
  • Long hours
  • Poor management style
  • Poor social support
  • Unclear management and work role
  • Work overload and pressure

Employers’ legal obligations

Employers can and must do their part to keep employees from suffering from stress. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), employers have a “legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it”.

It will not be possible to eliminate all stress from the work environment – and some employees may indeed find that a certain degree of stress enhances performance – but it becomes problematic when people start showing signs of adverse reactions.

The HSE advises employers to look out for the signs of stress in the workplace, including:

  • Acting more nervously
  • Arriving for work later
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Experiencing extreme emotional reactions – such as becoming tearful, sensitive or aggressive
  • Lacking motivation, commitment or confidence
  • Taking more time off

Within teams, employers are also advised to be alert to more arguments, higher staff turnover, drops in performance and higher levels of absence. There may also be more reports of stress and more complaints and grievances lodged.

Dealing with employee stress

Employers must carry out a stress risk assessment. This can involve looking at guidance provided by authorities, such as the HSE, and talking to employees about their concerns and opinions. You must then identify the hazards that could cause higher stress levels and what your business is doing to mitigate them.

However, if your firm’s risk assessment has not prevented employees suffering from stress, you should still take action. The sooner you can acknowledge the problem, the better. Speak to the employee or employees in question and find out what is causing their stress.

The HSE advises that you should encourage your employee to talk to someone about what they are experiencing. This could be their line manager, who may be able to make certain adjustments to their work, or their GP.

It’s important to remember that the most important thing an employer can do to reduce stress levels is to offer support. Finding out what someone suffering from stress needs and providing it can be the reason they start to experience greater job satisfaction.

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