Managing stress in the workplace

  • Work-related stress can have significant consequences – both for employees and employers
  • Loss of productivity, an increase in absences, and the threat of employers’ liability claims are among the dangers faced by businesses that fail to manage the risks appropriately
  • We discuss key liability considerations relating to workplace stress, and strategies to reduce the risks

It is estimated half a million British workers suffer from work-related stress, anxiety or depression. The economic consequences of this staggering statistic are stark – 11.7 million working days lost each year, equating to an annual cost of £5.2 billion.

While stress can cause significant damage to a business’s bottom-line, it can also harm workplace morale, and have a deep and long-lasting impact on the individuals affected.

In addition to the financial and ethical incentives for employers to manage the risks of workplace stress, they must also consider their statutory duty of care to their employees, and the risk of employers’ liability (EL) claims.

The link between workplace stress and employers’ liability claims

To succeed in an EL claim, an employee must prove that:

  • They have been diagnosed with a stress-related illness
  • This illness was caused by their work
  • The risk of this illness developing was foreseeable to their employer
  • The employer breached its duty of care by failing to take reasonable precautions to manage the risk

Successful EL claims relating to stress are rare. An analysis of 75 UK court cases relating to workplace stress, between 1992 and 2014, found only a handful of rulings went in favour of the employee. However, when claims do succeed, they can be costly, and even a claim that ultimately fails will take time and money to defend.

It is important employers consider the range of circumstances that could increase the risk of an employee developing a stress-related illness. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these circumstances could include:

  • Changes to an employee’s role – e.g. increased responsibility, tighter deadlines, more challenging duties
  • Organisational changes – e.g. reduced resources, changes to staffing levels, lack of managerial support/oversight, the threat of restructuring or redundancy
  • The actions/behaviour of colleagues – e.g. bullying, harassment, violence
  • Pre-existing physical or mental health conditions
  • Disciplinary action taken against them (see Yapp v Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Practical measures to manage work-related stress

Researchers who analysed two decades’ worth of court cases relating to workplace stress identified that “effective workplace stress management policies were important interventions that played a particularly significant role in avoiding legal action and reducing employees’ detrimental experiences.”

A straightforward, holistic framework for approaching risk management is Plan-Do-Check-Act. This type of strategy is based on three levels of intervention.

  • Primary – identify and mitigate stressors at work
  • Secondary – help employees to develop coping strategies, and higher resistance to stress, through education and training
  • Tertiary – support employees experiencing the signs and symptoms of stress-related ill-health

A Health and Safety Executive ‘Stress Summit’, held earlier this year, raised concerns that employers were not placing enough emphasis on primary interventions. Developing a suitable and sufficient stress risk assessment is an important part of the primary phase of intervention.

The role of management in reducing workplace stress

Managers have an important role to play at all three levels of intervention. The CIPD Line Management Behaviour and Stress at Work guidance provides useful examples of positive and negative line manager behaviour.

It is also important organisations keep stress management at the forefront of people’s minds, either through wellbeing programmes, individual mental and physical health programmes, or training and information materials.

Employers should also ensure they keep detailed records of the measures they have taken to manage the risk of workplace stress.

Examples of relevant records could include:

  • Stress or well-being policies/guidance
  • Stress risk assessments
  • Wellbeing surveys
  • Absence data and analysis
  • Return to work plans and monitoring
  • Occupational health reports
  • Incident reports/formal complaints
  • Individual performance/development reviews

How Zurich Risk Engineering can help

Our risk engineers can assess a customer’s stress risk management policies and practices against technical standards for employers’ liability and the expectations for good practice outlined in the HSE’s Management Standards. Where appropriate, we can then recommend Risk Improvement Actions.

At an insurance policy level, we can also help to reduce the impact of stress-related conditions through counselling and other health services.