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For employers who suspect they have a stress problem in the workplace, it is vital that they take steps to deal with it as soon a possible, says Martin Pratt. If they don’t they could face claims for disability discrimination, constructive dismissal or even straightforward personal injury.
1. Carry out a stress audit Health and Safety Executive guidance recommends identifying hazards that could cause stress early on. During any audit, use both qualitative data, for example informal discussions with staff, and quantitative data, such as analysing the reason for absences, to assess the situation. 2. Implement an anti-stress policyA stress policy should be the first place for management to turn when faced with stress related issues. It should be a statement setting out not only the actions management will take to protect the mental health of its staff, but it will also detail the employer’s overall attitude to dealing mental illnesses.3. Train your managersPolicies are useless without proper implementation. It is important that managers are aware of the issues and trained in both spotting signs of stress at work and taking action. This includes implementing anti-stress policies as well as harassment and flexible-working policies if appropriate.4. Tell staff about changesConsultations with individual staff, employee representatives and unions about workplace changes helps to identify existing and potential problems. It is vital in developing methods to control or remove risks and it may also be a legal obligation to prevent stress. Stress is a health and safety matter and employers are legally obliged to collectively consult on proposals which may substantially affect employees. This could include the introduction of new ways of working that could impact staff mental health. 5. Use return to work interviewsStress can be the underlying cause of other illnesses. Most court actions against employers relating to stress turn on whether the stress was “reasonably foreseeable”. A return to work interview can help identify potentially hidden stress triggers that the court or employment tribunal may later judge that the employer could or should have known about.6. Provide confidential supportIn the landmark stress at work case Sutherland v. Hatton in 2002, the Court of Appeal spoke approvingly of employers who offered counselling services. Although it will not exonerate a negligent employer, providing a counselling service may allow a company facing a stress claim to prove that it has complied with its duty of care towards an employee’s mental health.
Martin Pratt is an employment lawyer at Kingsley Napley LLP