Stress is rapidly becoming the largest single medically defined reason for absence from work.
As a result, stress at work is a growing area for a range of claims to industrial tribunals in various forms.
The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) is piloting a new approach to help employers work with employees to manage the risks from work-related stress.
Tackling work-related stress has been identified as one of the major challenges under the workplace health strategy for Northern Ireland, Working For Health.
The strategy will provide information to employees on good practice. The standards are not regulations but will help organisations meet their existing duty of care and duty to assess risks.
Many organisations have no policy at all for mental health issues even though employers have a duty of care for the health and safety of their employees.
HSENI has defined stress as "an adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them".
If stress is intense and goes on for some time it can lead to mental and physical ill health.
An employer has a duty of care for workers' mental, as well as physical, well-being through The Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 as amended. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 as amended also require employers to carry out risk assessments involving the health, safety and welfare of their staff at work.
To help organisations meet these duties employers should follow a risk assessment approach as follows:
- identify hazards. Major causes of work-related stress can be categorised into six key risk factors (demands, control, support, relationships, role and change);
- decide who may be harmed and how. Identify the factors which are a problem;
- evaluate the risk. Use the information above to determine how the organisation is performing in relation to each of the six risk factors;
- record the findings. Work with staff to decide on improvement targets and actions;
- monitor and review. Look for improvements, communicate successes, tackle strategies that are not working and repeat the audit.
The Court of Appeal has given a judgement in a civil case taken by an employee on how claims relating to an employer's negligence in not acting over a worker's stress at work should be dealt with.
The judgement from the Court of Appeal can be summarised as follows:
? it must have been obvious to the employer or the employer should have reasonably foreseen that the worker was under stress for a claim by the worker to succeed. An employer is usually entitled to assume that a worker can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless the employer knows of some particular problem or vulnerability;
? the size and scope of the employer's operation, its resources and the demands it faces are relevant in deciding what is reasonable. These include the interests of other employees and the need to treat them fairly in any redistribution of duties;
? an employer who offers confidential counselling is likely to have a strong defence to a stress- related claim. But this is not always the case.
The Court of Appeal (Intel Incorporation UK Ltd v Daw 2007) found that even if an employer has systems in place to support staff suffering work-related stress, this is no substitute for putting an action plan in place to reduce their workload.
Further information on stress at work is available from your local CAB or from the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland on its One-2-One Helpline 0800 0320 121 or by visiting its website at www. hseni.gov.uk.
Lucy Cochrane is an information and policy officer with Citizens Advice.