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Stress at Work

In these difficult economic times and with cut backs in the news it is important to manage stress in the workplace.

Tackling the issue of workplace stress should not just be seen as a legal obligation as there are a range of other benefits including the reduced cost of absence, improved workplace morale and increased productivity which can result from managing stress in the workplace.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE GB) 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 their workers’ mental as well as physical wellbeing 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 the HSE has produced Management Standards on work-related stress which use a risk assessment approach as follows:

  • Identify the risk factors – the six main risk factors for work-related stress are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change
  • Decide who can be harmed and how – several sources of data, information and knowledge can be used to identify the extent to which work-related stress is a problem in the organisation
  • Evaluate the risks – use the information from the previous step and discuss the conclusions with a representative sample of employees and work with them to develop solutions
  • Record the findings – produce, develop and implement an action plan
  • Monitor and Review - monitor against the action plan to ensure the agreed actions are taking place, evaluate the effectiveness of the solutions implemented and decide what further action or data gathering, if any, is needed.

The Court of Appeal has given guidance on how claims relating to an employer's negligence in not acting over a worker's stress at work should be dealt with which can be summarised as follows:

  • it must have been obvious to the employer 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 onus is usually on the worker to complain about stress and to bring it to the attention of the employer
  • 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
  • it is unlikely that an employer will have breached their duty of care to the worker in allowing a willing worker to continue in a stressful job when the only alternative is dismissal or demotion
  • an employer who offers a confidential counselling service is likely to have a strong defence to a stress-related claim by a worker. However, this is not always the case. The Court of Appeal (Intel Corporation (UK) Limited v Daw 2007) has found that even if an employer has systems in place to support staff who are suffering from 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 their Helpline 0800 0320 121 or by visiting their website at www.hseni.gov.uk.

Siobhan Harding is an Information & Policy Officer with Citizens Advice

Belfast Telegraph