Workplace stress: key steps to help keep you on the right side of the law

Work-related stress can not only take a psychological, emotional and physical toll on employees, the impact on organisations can also be considerable – from the business cost of sickness absence to the legal costs of breaching duty of care responsibilities.

Claims for ‘stress at work’ are not uncommon in the courts and should an employee decide to pursue a case legally, an organisation is not only at risk of substantial financial expense, it is also at risk of serious and irrevocable damage to its reputation.

No single statute exists that exclusively covers workplace stress. Relevant regulations range from the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (l999) to the Working Time Regulations (1998) and the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations (l977).

There is also legal precedent to consider. Although employers should not rely solely on previous case histories, over recent years the courts have nevertheless been able to offer some helpful guidance.

In one particularly noteworthy case (Barber v Somerset County Council, 2004), a claim against Somerset County Council by a former teacher, which ended in the House of Lords, helped establish the following set of principles. These principles, outlined in the judgement, may be applied in future cases and can help employers to fulfil their duty of care to their employees:

As every stress-related case is different, employers should always consult their own legal representatives on a case-by-case basis.

1/ Employers must keep up to date with the developing knowledge of occupational stress and the probable effectiveness of the precautions that can be taken to meet it.

2/ An “autocratic and bullying style of leadership” which is “unsympathetic” to complaints of occupational stress is a factor that courts can take into account in deciding whether there has been a breach of the employer’s duty to an employee.

3/ As soon as employers know an employee is at risk of suffering injury from occupational stress, they have a duty to do something about it. This duty continues until something reasonable is done to help the employee.

4/ Employees who complain do not need to be forceful in their complaints and do not need to describe their troubles and symptoms in detail. They may be suffering from depression, making it more difficult to complain. Their complaints should be listened to sympathetically.

5/ Certified sickness absence due to stress or depression needs to be taken seriously by employers. It requires an enquiry from the employer about the employee’s problems and what can be done to ease them. Employees should not be brushed off with requests to reprioritise work without the employer taking steps to consider and improve the situation

6/ A management culture that is sympathetic to employees suffering from occupational stress, and is prepared to take steps to alleviate it, may make a real difference to the outcome. Monitoring employees who are known to be suffering from occupational stress is mandatory. If they do not improve, then more robust steps may need to be taken to help them

7/ Employers have a statutory duty to carry out risk assessments.

The House of Lords judgement of the case included the assertion that an employer’s duty is to “take reasonable care to avoid injuring his employee’s health”.

According to the CIPD, this includes giving consideration to a number of factors including the size and scope of your organisation’s business, the risk and magnitude of harm to health, the resources you have available and the demands your organisation faces.

Further information can be found within ‘Work-related stress – what the law says’ – a helpful guidance document produced by Acas, the Health and Safety Executive, Health, Work and Wellbeing and the CIPD.