The way employers deal with workplace stress is in serious need of change, a leading law firm has warned.
Research indicates that stress, depression and anxiety account for 44 per cent of work-related illnesses across the UK, while 57 per cent of all working days are lost due to ill health. *
Employers must address the stigma around talking about stress-related issues and change their workplace cultures to tackle them, says Matthew Cole, of Ipswich-based law firm Prettys.
With April marking Stress Awareness Month, he warned: “As one of the biggest health hazards facing employers, there’s still plenty that could be done to identify stress before it results in a worsened scenario for both employer and employee.”
Firms need to create an individual approach and act sensitively when dealing with staff who report such problems, said Matthew, employment partner at the firm.
“They should be proactive in starting conversations with individuals in order to investigate their issue and ensure they are taking appropriate steps to help alleviate work-related stress.”
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), employers have a duty of care to assess the nature and scale of health risks at work, including stress.
However, many are still finding it difficult to discuss mental ill-health even though they are aware of the issue.
“They still need to shift their attitudes by considering the differences in individual’s responses to stressful circumstances,” said Matthew.
“It’s not one size fits all… take time to know your employee. Some people thrive and some suffer when put under a stressful situation and employers need to help each person individually.
“Moderating workload, providing adequate respite time and access to counselling, plus producing a supportive working environment for your employee is important.
“Sometimes alleviating stress among employees can be as simple as encouraging them to take time off for holidays or introducing wellbeing programmes into the workplace such as yoga and pilates.”
There are still difficulties concerning employee rights when it comes to stress, as it is not currently recognised as a medical condition.
Although workers have a statutory right not to exceed the maximum average working week of 48 hours, many employees feel pressure to exceed these.
“Stricter policies around out-of-hours contracts need to be set by employers without limiting the benefits to unconventional working hours that works for many employees that have family and other commitments.”
Louise Plant, Prettys’ head of personal injury, said stress-related injury claims can be hard to instigate.
“You have to prove that there was a foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury arising from the work you were required to do or from the conditions in which you were working,” she explained.
“Your employer must be shown to have taken insufficient steps in addressing this risk after being made aware of your problems and that your health was suffering.”
Louise added: “Many factors can contribute to workplace stress; from too high or too low a workload, inadequate training, bullying or abuse from colleagues, poor management or even a physically uncomfortable working environment.”
She advised employees who thought they were suffering from stress as a result of the workplace, to inform their employer of their problems, and to seek medical assistance.
“Keeping a diary of their ill health alongside a timeline of workplace events and recording any impact upon your life and finances, such as, cost of medication or loss of earnings will also assist in the success of a claim.”
Matthew Cole and Louise Plant