Does an Employer’s Duty of Care Extend to Stress?
Stress is one of the leading causes of ill health in the workplace, with the HSE reporting over 17 million working days lost as a result of 914,000 cases of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2021/22.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) definition of workplace stress is: “The reaction people have to excessive demands or pressures, arising when people try to cope with tasks, responsibilities or other types of pressure connected with their job, but find difficulty, strain or worry in doing so”.
What causes workplace stress?
Work-related stress occurs due to the pressures or demands in the workplace. For each employee, stress triggers and levels will vary. Factors such as skills and experience, age and disability can all impact a person’s ability to manage their stress and prevent it from becoming out of control.
While stress is often viewed as a negative experience, it can have positive effects in small doses. Eustress, also known as “good stress,” is a form of stress that has been found to be beneficial for health, motivation, performance and emotional well-being. When exposed to low-level stressors, the brain produces neurotrophins, which strengthen connections between neurons and boost productivity, concentration, and overall performance. Additionally learning to manage stress can improve resilience and determination, making it easier to handle future stressful situations.
Some common causes of stress include:
- Excessive workload
- Long hours or shift work
- A lack of job security
- Working in an unsafe environment
- Concerns about commuting
- Low job satisfaction
- Low pay
- A lack of support from management or co-workers
- Fear of violence, discrimination, or harassment
The impacts of stress can have serious psychological consequences for employees if allowed to spiral out of control, leading to anxiety and depression. Over time, these psychological conditions can increase the risk of physical health problems, including heart disease, back pain and insomnia.
Stress can also have a significant impact on businesses: affecting employee performance, retention, absence rates and overall morale. In reverse, this means that employers who prioritise mental health and stress reduction are likely to see positive impacts on wellbeing, morale, productivity and retention.
What is an employer’s duty of care?
All employers have a 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 risks as far as is reasonably practical. This includes taking reasonable steps to prevent mental injury to employees, such as excessive stress.
While there is no specific law addressing work-related stress in the UK, employers have a duty to manage workplace stress under The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and The Equality Act 2010. Failure to fulfil these duties can result in legal, financial and reputational consequences for employers.
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974
In the UK, under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 employers have a legal duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their employees, including managing the identified risks. This means that employers must identify and assess the threat of work-related stress and take reasonable steps to prevent or control those risks.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to carry out a “suitable and sufficient assessment” of the risks to the health and safety of their employees. This includes assessing the nature and scale of health risks at work and is not limited to physical risks, but also applies to stress and other mental health risks. If an employer has more than 5 employees, they must record these findings in writing.
Employers are then required to put proper control measures in place to avoid identified risks, wherever possible. Where it is not possible to completely eliminate a risk, steps must be taken to reduce it so far as is “reasonably practicable”.
The Equality Act 2010
Employers may face liability for stress-related injuries and illnesses under the Equality Act 2010 if the stress is a result of discrimination or harassment at work. If an employer fails to prevent workplace harassment, discrimination and victimisation then they can be held responsible for any unlawful behaviour that causes work-related stress, even if the behaviour is carried out by employees.
How can employees struggling with stress be identified?
Identifying employees who are struggling with stress can be challenging – particularly in cases where people are working from home for the majority of the time. Symptoms vary heavily between individuals and may not always be obvious; however, there are some common indicators that employers can look out for, including:
- Changes in behaviour: Employees who are stressed may exhibit changes in behaviour such as increased irritability, mood swings, or isolation from colleagues.
- Decreased productivity: When employees are stressed, they may have difficulty concentrating on their work or feeling motivated, which can make their productivity suffer as a result.
- Physical symptoms: Stress can show through physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and insomnia.
- Increased absenteeism: Employees who are struggling with stress may be more likely to call in sick or take time off work.
- Emotional symptoms: Stress can also lead to emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
How can employers protect staff from work-related stress?
In any workplace, a certain amount of pressure is normal, but if an employee is clearly struggling with work-related stress, it’s the employer’s responsibility to take action to support their wellbeing and prevent further harm.
This duty goes beyond reacting to stress-related issues; it also entails preventing stress from becoming widespread among employees. Early intervention and prevention measures can significantly reduce the negative effects of stress, benefiting both the company and individual employees.
Businesses can take several steps to prevent and reduce stress in the workplace. Some effective strategies include:
1. Conducting a stress risk assessment:
By conducting a risk assessment that specifically considers stress as a potential hazard, employers can identify areas of work that may be causing or contributing to stress levels. This assessment can help employers develop targeted interventions to reduce stress levels in the workplace. These interventions can include changes to work processes, workload distribution, or communication protocols, as well as providing support and resources to employees who are experiencing stress-related issues.
Once these risks have been identified and measures put into place, they should be reviewed at least annually to ensure they are still effective. It could also be beneficial to carry out employee satisfaction surveys seeking views on workplace attitudes toward stress and seeking suggestions for new ways of combatting any existing problems.
2. Promoting work-life balance:
Encouraging flexible working arrangements, setting realistic workloads, encouraging employees to take their annual leave and promoting a healthy work-life balance can help to prevent stress and burnout. Additionally, showing that you value your employees will help to create a less pressured environment where they feel able to be vulnerable and open when struggling.
3. Encouraging open communication:
Creating a culture that prioritises mental health and open communication where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns and seeking support can help to prevent stress from escalating. In this environment, staff will feel more able to open up and be honest about how they are feeling, which will allow for reasonable adjustments to be made.
To champion this culture, managers should be provided with the skills to have sensitive conversations with employees. By teaching managers to identify signs of work-related stress, they can prevent these symptoms from escalating and provide proactive support to alleviate stress factors. With proper training, managers can also offer guidance on effective stress management techniques and support employees experiencing stress-related issues.
4. Providing support:
Offering employee assistance programs and access to mental health resources can provide crucial support for employees, especially those who may be uncomfortable going to their manager for support. This can help to prevent and reduce stress levels in the workplace.
One effective approach is to implement a wellbeing programme that includes lifestyle assessments, mental health days, and discounted gym memberships. These initiatives demonstrate to employees that their health and happiness are valued, which can help to reduce stress levels and increase engagement.
5. Implement a personal safety service:
Introducing a personal safety service can also help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety among employees. By providing access to resources and support in potentially dangerous situations, such as working with the public or commuting, employees can feel more confident and secure in their work environment. This can help to reduce the likelihood of stress-related issues arising from concerns about personal safety or workplace violence.
Personal safety apps can have a positive impact on employees’ sense of safety and wellbeing while commuting or outside of work, acting as a workplace perk. Our research found that 51% of employees believe their employer has a duty of care to them outside of working hours, so by providing a flexible personal safety solution, employers can fulfil this duty and help to alleviate employee stress and anxiety related to safety concerns both inside and outside of working hours.
Working alone or in isolation for extended periods can have a negative effect on mental health. The lack of social interaction and support can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can contribute to high stress levels. Introducing a personal safety service can provide a sense of connection and support for employees who work alone, offering them an avenue to seek help if needed and reducing the sense of isolation
Knowing they have the ability to quickly contact the emergency services can help employees feel more confident and in control in dangerous situations, reducing their stress and anxiety levels. This can further help to foster a sense of trust and confidence in the organisation’s commitment to employee wellbeing, which can further contribute to a positive and productive work environment.