Stress in the Workplace: An Employer’s Responsibilities

man with head in hands around desk with colleagues trying to get his attention all at the same time

According to the most recent Labour Force Survey, in 2018/19, 602,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, which resulted in 12.8 million lost working days. Stress Awareness Month (April) provides the perfect opportunity for employers to review their provisions for protecting the mental health and wellbeing of their workers. Do you know what your legal responsibilities are? Are you confident that you’re meeting the required standards? What are the consequences of non-compliance and inadequate provisions? “Stress” is a word used every day in common speech, but few of us have taken the time to fully understand what it means and how it is caused. Only then can we look to address its causes.

What is Workplace Stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. How stress is triggered and the symptoms it causes will vary from person to person. Examples of behaviour that could be caused by stress include:

  • Mood swings
  • A rise in the incidence of sick days
  • Loss of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Lack of confidence
  • Disproportionate emotional responses 
  • A nervous disposition
  • Complaints of physical symptoms such as headaches

What Causes Workplace Stress?

The HSE’s “Management Standards” highlight six main areas of work design that can affect stress levels. 

  • Demands
  • Control
  • Support
  • Relationships
  • Role
  • Change

Employers should conduct a comprehensive workplace assessment to identify any potential risks to mental health in these areas.

An Employer’s Responsibilities

Employers have a legal duty to protect their employees from workplace stress. All businesses, regardless of their size, must conduct a risk assessment which reviews the areas outlined above. Steps must be taken to reduce any risks identified. How an employer chooses to document this process is their choice. Businesses with fewer than five employees do not need to record anything but they must still conduct a risk assessment. 

Many managers are promoted due to their subject knowledge and industry expertise, but they may lack the relevant people skills and understanding of key policies to effectively implement health and safety policies. The provision of adequate staff training is crucial to the effective management of workplace stress.

Howlett Health and Safety Services can offer specialised training courses (Stress Awareness and Mental Health Awareness) and expert advice on creating and completing risk assessments. We will ensure that your staff are well-informed and that documents are fit for purpose, support compliance with relevant regulations and serve as a useful tool for effecting positive change.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

Companies that do not abide by the regulations and allow stress to build in the workplace will suffer the consequences. In one of the largest pieces of research in this area, the Centre for Mental Health in 2017 estimated that mental health problems in the UK workforce cost employers £35 billion in the previous year. The biggest cost was due to reduced productivity at work, with sickness absence and staff turnover also contributing to the total figure.

As advances in technology allow employees to be “on” 24/7, people are more inclined to battle on at a lower rate of productivity than take time off to recuperate. As a result, “burnout” is becoming an increasing problem. This is extremely costly for businesses who have to bear the cost of recruiting and training new staff.

Companies that fail to fulfil their legal duty to protect the mental health of workers may also face hefty fines. While it is far from easy for an employee to prove the necessary foreseeability of illness principle, as laid down in the case of Hatton-v-Sutherland, 2002, it is not impossible. And where a worker makes a successful personal injury claim, the compensation can be substantial. 

In addition to the direct financial consequences of non-compliance, companies that fail to protect their employees’ wellbeing will suffer potentially irreparable damage to their reputation which could result in lost business and diminished profits.

How to Help

The first step is to make sure that you and your team are well-informed about workplace stress and how to minimise the risk of it occurring. 

Howlett Health and Safety Services offer specialist training (Stress Awareness and Mental Health Awareness) to help employers understand their responsibilities and to implement effective policies, procedures and practices to protect the wellbeing of their workers. We also offer a self-assessment questionnaire for employees which can provide business owners with valuable insight into potential risks and gaps in provision.

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