Around one in five people suffer from workplace stress in the UK with half a million reporting illness as a result of job-related pressures. Stress and stress-related illnesses such as depression are among the most challenging issues for employers and a failure to address them properly can leave you exposed to constructive dismissal, negligence and disability discrimination claims. Whilst there is no specific law that deals with workplace stress, employers are obliged by law to be responsible for employee health and safety in the workplace – and managing workplace stress is considered an area of that responsibility.
Many factors can cause stress at work but common triggers are overwork, job insecurity, over-promotion, lack of training, bad working relationships, bullying and harassment, change and personal issues. Understanding what is causing an employee to be stressed is key to managing it.
Talk to your employee
As soon as you have been alerted to a potential issue, you should meet with the employee, discuss the problem and work with him to identify possible solutions. You may also wish to speak to managers and colleagues to understand the situation more fully.
• Stress caused by genuine overwork: try to identify ways to reduce that workload, by reassigning duties on a temporary or permanent basis or providing additional resources. Do remember to consult with the employee before taking a decision to reassign part of their duties, as doing so unilaterally could give grounds for a constructive dismissal claim.
• Stress caused by difficult working relationships: steps should be taken to try to resolve those relationship issues, through workplace counselling or reallocation of duties.
• Stress due to personal issues: it might be appropriate to consider allowing a short period of unpaid leave or a temporary period of flexible working.
Seek medical opinion
However sceptical the employer is, it is always advisable to consider seeking a medical assessment particularly where the employee has a stress-related illness, such as depression – note that the complaint can be genuine even if the trigger seems objectively pretty trivial. The doctor should assess the employee’s current state of health, the causes of the problem, and any recommended steps to address the situation. Any recommendations that are reasonably practicable should be implemented. If a recommendation is not feasible, make a note of why.
Where an employee’s stress or depression renders him ‘disabled’ for the purposes of the Equality Act, you will then be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ameliorate the disadvantage suffered as a result of the ‘disability’. A failure to do so will constitute disability discrimination. Advice from a doctor as to possible adjustments will be particularly important as a tribunal will scrutinize the extent to which you comply with any recommendations.
Return to work
When the employee returns to work, you should meet with him to clarify your understanding of his current state of health and to talk about any temporary or permanent adjustments in place to facilitate his return. Make notes so there is no confusion later as to what was agreed.
Communication throughout absence
Regular communication must be maintained with an absent employee claiming workplace stress – an employee who is too unwell to work is not necessarily incapable of communicating with their employer. You may have to consider offering to go to their house to discuss the situation instead or ask them to set out their concerns in writing. In all cases, whether a complaint of stress or a full-blown grievance, the employee should be asked what steps he believes should be taken to address the situation, but the employer is not bound by replies.
Dismissing a stressed employee
You should make reasonable efforts to assist an employee who is off with stress, but there may come a point when you have to consider dismissing him due to continued inability to perform the role. Any dismissal must be handled sensitively and carefully to avoid claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination, as follows:
• Obtain an up-to-date medical assessment of the employee’s state of health in order to understand the prognosis and the type of work he might be able to do in the short term;
• Consider any alternative roles before dismissing;
• The employee should be given the opportunity to discuss the proposed dismissal and comment on the employer’s assessment of his state of health and ability to work.
• Whether or not the illness is claimed (or even proven) to be your fault, continued incapability can still be a fair reason for a dismissal.