It’s National Stress Awareness Day. What are the obligations of employers to deal with stress at work, and what are your rights?
National Stress Awareness Day
A recent survey has found the fear of redundancy is a major stress factor, especially with the younger generation. And in other surveys, it has been found the vast majority of employees give a false reason for a stress-related absence, such as having a stomach upset or headache. Very few appear to be comfortable to tell the truth about their stress.
Typical causes of work-related stress are an overload of work, bullying, lack of support and a bad working environment.
An important question, however, is what an employer’s legal obligation is in relation to stress. And what steps can you take as an employee if you are suffering from work –related stress?
The legal obligations of an employer
There is no specific law aimed at workplace stress, but employers do have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff. This is in addition to duties under common law (non-statute) to take reasonable steps to ensure your health and safety at work.
Your legal rights
You do have the right to make a legal claim for stress against your employer. Any claim would usually be either for personal injury or constructive dismissal (your forced resignation).
1. Personal injury
A personal injury claim would arise from a breach in the duty of care by your employer, namely to provide a safe system of work. You would have to have suffered a recognised psychiatric illness, such as clinical depression, and you would also have to show this was caused by stress at work and no outside factors.
You would further need to show that it was “reasonably foreseeable” by your employer that you would develop a mental illness and in turn this means that your employer will need to have been aware of your worsening condition. You should bear in mind, however, that an employer is usually entitled to assume that an employee can withstand the normal pressures that comes with the job- unless there is good reason for this not to be the case.
2. Constructive Dismissal
An additional claim you can bring is for constructive dismissal (based on your resignation). You would have to show that your employer is in breach of the term implied term in your contract of employment to provide a safe system of work, and which renders it untenable of you to continue. The breach should be sufficiently serious and fundamental for you to resign, and you would normally be expected to lodge a formal grievance first. This is to give your employer an opportunity to investigate matters, and a en employment tribunal would usually expect them to have this opportunity.
If your stress is caused by a disability, then you have added protection. In these circumstances, you may be able to make a claim for disability discrimination if your employer fails to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace aimed at alleviating your stress.
Practical steps you can take to resolve your stress at work
You are best first trying to resolve any stress issues informally if you can. This means, speaking to your line manager or HR. Most sensible employers will be sympathetic. You should try and keep a written record of your issues if you can including any emails. This will be invaluable to refer back to if you need it at a later stage- otherwise your employer could deny any knowledge of your condition.
If your stress is caused by the unreasonable conduct of one of your work colleagues or line manager, then you may have to immediately lodge a grievance if you cannot resolve matters informally. The grievance would usually be lodged with management or HR.
If you simply need to ease the pressure at work (through no fault of your employer), you could ask for:-
- a flexible working arrangement;
- further support or training;
- different lines of communication.
There is no obligation on your employer to agree to any of the above (unless you have a disability when reasonable adjustments need to be considered).
If your condition is serious, you may be signed off work by your GP. Many employees end up being on long-term sick leave because of stress. The longer you are off work, the more difficult it is generally to go back, and many will consider a mutually agreed termination of employment in these circumstances. Indeed an agreed termination under a settlement agreement is often even possible at a much earlier stage if there is a willingness by both parties to explore this. As always, it is best to obtain early legal advice if you are considering this route.