Stress at work
Employment law- Stress at work
What is “Work-Related Stress”?
If you suffer from stress at work or “work-related stress”, this is generally understood to be “a harmful reaction that people have due to an overload of pressures and demands placed on them at work”.
Stress at work can be caused by any number of things, including bullying, being overworked, a lack of support from your colleagues or simply a bad working environment. Recent surveys have shown that work-related stress makes up about 40% of all sickness related illnesses in the labour market, and many will be suffering from mental health issues as a result.
What are your employer’s responsibilities if you are suffering with work related stress?
Your employer has the following main legal duties:
- to identify significant and foreseeable risks to your health under the Health & Safety Act;
- to prevent harm to your health that is foreseeable and caused by work;
- to consider any disability you have (physical or otherwise), that has a substantial or long-term effect on your ability to work.
Your employer needs to be proactive in considering what factors could cause ill-health or make existing health conditions even worse. They should be taking reasonable steps to identify the risks and identify possible sources of stress that could foreseeably cause you health issues.
Your employer is, however, entitled to expect that you can cope with the normal pressures of the job, unless they are aware of a particular problem. In terms of whether harm is “foreseeable”, this will depend mainly on the following;
- is the workload more than is normal for the role?
- are the demands on you higher than compared to others doing similar work?
- are there signs that you are suffering from stress (for example in your behaviour or where there is repeated time off work for sickness?
- could your health issues be classified as a “disability”? This would be a physical or mental impairment that has a long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out day to day activities.
Once, you have notified your employer of an issue (assuming they are not aware of it first), responsibility passes to your employer to intervene and take all reasonable steps, including the possibility of sending you home if necessary, and referring the matter to occupational health.
What is considered reasonable will depend on the facts of each case and the particular characteristics of each employee, together with the demands placed on them by their employer. An employer will not necessarily be expected to redistribute work at the expense of another employee, and it will be a balancing act in each case as to what action is expected to be taken.
Can stress amount to a disability for the purposes of discrimination?
If your stress has been caused only by a reaction to difficulties at work, it is unlikely in itself to be classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.This is because it is not automatically considered to be a mental impairment that affects your day to day normal activities.
This is not to say that work related stress or stress-related illnesses are incapable of being classed as a disability under the Act. There are four sets of criteria that must be established:-
- there must be a physical or mental impairment;
- this impairment must have substantial adverse effects;
- those substantial effects must be long term;
- the long-term substantial effects must have an adverse effect on normal day-to-day activities.
Whilst mental illnesses are more than capable of amounting to a disability, in order to qualify for protection the illness must last (or be expected to last) for a period of 1 year or more. As a result, many forms of stress and depression that are related to specific events such as bereavement, a marriage break up or short-term stress at work, are unlikely to qualify as disabilities.
If you are covered under the Act, it is unlawful for your employer to engage in the following:
- direct discrimination;
- discrimination arising from disability;
- indirect discrimination;
- failing to make reasonable adjustments in relation to your disability; and
- harassment and victimisation.
What should I do if I am feeling stressed due to work?
The first point of call is often to bring up your issues informally with a line manager or HR personnel. Even though this may be an informal stage, it is sensible to confirm your discussion in writing to protect you in case your employer later suggests that there was no awareness of the issue. In fact, your employer may later raise a successful defence if it can be shown that they were not made aware of your stress.
Practical steps that your employer could take, following this conversation, include reviewing your job description to ensure you are carrying out the right amount of work, supporting you with further training and regular meeting or possibly arranging flexible working arrangements.
If you still feel that nothing has been done about the situation, you may wish to then raise a formal grievance by following your company’s procedures which can usually be obtained from your HR department. Your employer is unlikely to want to travel down the grievance route and it may be that asking for the policy is enough for them to sit up and take notice of your problem.
If the stress you are suffering is simply too much and affecting your health, you may wish to consider visiting your GP who can sign you off work until you have recovered fully. You are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks if you are too ill to attend work, and your employer may also offer an Occupational Scheme whereby they will pay you more than the minimum statutory amount.
You may wish to also consider whether working flexibly could help improve your health and decrease your stress levels, especially if your stress is caused by caring for children or a disabled person. Every employee now has the right to request flexible working from their employer and your employers must reasonably consider your request. They are not obligated to give you flexible arrangements but there are only a limited number of legitimate business reasons why they cannot do this.
You may also consider a negotiated exit with your employer is the only way forward (see below).
What if it is not my work that is causing me stress?
Stress can, of course, also be due to outside sources such as relationship issues, bereavement or a physical disability.
If the stress is affecting your work, you should generally be encouraged to bring this to the attention of your line manager or HR. This, especially if the stress is so serious that you may be classed as having a “disability” and wish to rely on the protection of the Equality Act. If it is a personal matter, you may wish to ask that it is kept confidential and kept only between those who need to know.
As stated above, it may be that you wish to request flexible working arrangements if you have other commitments outside of work that are having an effect on your stress levels.
Should my employer be making contact with me if I am signed off work because of my stress?
Such contact can amount to fair and appropriate management by your employer, and is often beneficial to you too so that you don’t have the feeling of being isolated or ignored. Such contact should really be made, however, only to facilitate any aid and logistics for you to return to work- and not to address disciplinary or performance issues. There has been recent case law that has upheld employee’s rights where their employer has made such contact where the employee is suffering from stress or a mental health condition, and which has given rise to a successful constructive dismissal claim by those employees.
Could I be dismissed because I am too stressed to turn up for work?
If you are suffering from a significant level of stress, you may well have been signed off work by your GP. Your employer is not obliged, however, to keep your job available for you on an open-ended basis. Your employer could ultimately dismiss you for long-term sickness absence, or if they consider you are no longer capable of carrying out your role, but they will have to carry out a fair process in doing so.
This means that the underlying reason for the absence should be investigated, and if there are signs of a stress-related illness, expert medical advice should be sought, either by your own medical team, or one appointed by your employer (such as an occupational health therapist). It may be that the stress is down to the way you have been treated by your manager, or an overload of work. Or it may be that you are the subject of office bullying. These are matters which can be addressed by your employer.
If such investigation shows no good reason for the absence,however, (in other words it is not accepted that you have any stress related illness), your employer might treat the absence as a misconduct issue. This is one of the fair reasons for dismissal.
If there is a good reason for the absence (so that your stress is accepted as genuine), and your illness is through not fault of your employer, then reasonable adjustments to help you get back to work should be considered. If this does not prove possible, then your employer may ultimately be justified in considering a dismissal based on your illness- this is also one of the fair reasons for dismissal.
A negotiated exit?
In many cases, your stress will be such that you can’t see a long term future with your employer. In these circumstances, it may be possible for an agreement to be reached with your employer for the mutual termination of your employment. This would usually result in a lump sum financial package being paid to you together with a job reference, in return for which you would agree not to make any future tribunal claim against your employer.
This is a very tactical situation and you are best taking legal advice first- especially if the stress has been caused by your employers actions. Unless the legal and practical basis of your position has been properly put forward, there is often little incentive for your employer to reach an amicable solution.
If negotiations are successful, you will almost certainly be asked to sign a settlement agreement which is a document setting out the full terms and is binding between the parties. For this reason, you need independent legal advice on the agreement, and which needs to be signed and certified by that lawyer in addition to your own signature.
We have negotiated thousands of settlements with employers where there are stress issues, with very high success rates. We appreciate that this is a very difficult time for employees, and we are very sympathetic to your cause.