Effectively dealing with stress at work

Interview

Careful consideration of how return to work interviews are conducted is crucial. Image © Fotolia / Sergey Nivens

Stress at work is a major issue for employers.

Pressure is something we are all likely to experience regularly and can motivate us to perform at our best. However, too much pressure can result in feelings of being unable to cope, leaving us liable to suffer from stress in the workplace.

By underestimating issues, or failing to manage the effects of stress, employers are unlikely to get the best out of their employees and also run the increased risk of stress-related claims. Effective management can avoid the considerable costs of dealing with such claims.

Designing a stress/well-being policy

Practices should introduce a policy that sets out the definition, causes and effects of stress at work – and the responsibilities of the employer, managers and employees in tackling the problem.

The policy should make it clear this is an issue the practice takes seriously and give employees guidance as to how to deal with the effects of stress – and how to raise these concerns in the workplace.

Practices should also review their other policies to ensure all are adequate in dealing with the issues. Anti-bullying and harassment policies, grievance procedures, disciplinary procedures and any flexible working policy should all be carefully considered.

Return to work interviews

By making effective use of return to work interviews, management can welcome employees back to work, ensuring they are fully fit to return while identifying reasons for absence.

Interviews should assist in identifying and addressing any problems that may be causing, or contributing to, the absence, while agreeing the priorities for the employee’s return to work.

Practices should actively consider making adjustments that facilitate an employee’s return to work after sickness. Careful consideration of how return to work interviews are structured and conducted is crucial.

Stress audits

A stress audit involves talking informally to staff, either individually or in groups, to find out where there may be concerns. Practices should look to engage their employees in the process and let employees know why they are carrying out the exercise and what they are trying to achieve.

A well-performed stress audit should assist in identifying and assessing problem areas and preventing future problems, or cure any existing ones.

Forewarned is forearmed

People generally are uncomfortable with change and it can be a source of stress. Practices should consult regularly with employees and their representatives on organisational changes.

Consultation should always be a two-way process. In consulting with staff early on and avoiding the circulation of rumours on organisational changes should allow staff to feel more involved, allowing them time to prepare.

Providing adequate training to managers

Managers play a key role in identifying and managing stress in an organisation. They are likely to see the problems that cause stress first hand and will often be the initial point of contact when an individual is feeling stressed.

It is essential they have the skills to be able to manage these situations and there are good channels of communication with staff they manage, their managers and (outside) human resources professionals.

Managers should also consider effective training in respect of prioritisation of workloads – avoiding placing unreasonable demands on employees and providing appropriate delegation of duties.

Health and safety

It is an implied term of every employment contract the employer will take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of its employees at work.

This includes a duty to take reasonable care not to cause psychiatric harm to an employee by reason of the character or volume of work imposed on them. Practices that ignore this risk large awards against them.

Constructive dismissal

The implied term of mutual trust and confidence runs through all employment contracts. A breach of the term allows an employee to claim for constructive dismissal.

To succeed in a constructive dismissal claim, an employee must show the employer’s behaviour is so unreasonable, it amounts to a fundamental breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. This entitles the employee to leave employment and treat themself as having been constructively dismissed.

This type of claim is increasingly being used for stress-related cases where the resulting psychiatric injury can be traced back to the unreasonable behaviour of the employer.

Unfair dismissal

An employee with more than two years’ continuous service can bring a claim for unfair dismissal in an employment tribunal.

Stress-related problems commonly present themselves as absence from work and should be treated as any other sickness-related absence. Quite often, where stress is connected to an increased or challenging workload, performance problems and stress will be linked.

Unless a dismissal is considered to be fair and reasonable, in both the decision reached and the process followed, a tribunal is likely to find the dismissal is unfair and could award a maximum basic award of £14,370 and a compensatory amount of up to £78,962.

It is essential practices think about what can be done in the future to prevent the stress problems occurring.

  • Mark Stevens is a solicitor in the employment team at Veale Wasbrough Vizards in Birmingham.

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