Sometimes, it seems like there is a stress epidemic going on as the pressures of modern life cause more and more people, in all walks of life and of all ages, to report feelings of stress.  The impact of this societal issue on the modern workplace should not be underestimated. The Health And Safety Executive (HSE) reports that in 2015/2016 45% of all working days lost to ill health were because of work-related stress. The overall economic loss to the Great British economy is estimated to be over £5 billion. What can you do if you think work stress is making you sick?

What is stress?

Whilst stress is not classed as an illness in itself, it can lead to health conditions (both physical and mental) such as high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.

Stress is not the same thing as pressure; we all feel pressure at work and indeed need to in order to perform at our best. Work-related stress occurs when this pressure is intense and prolonged, without the opportunity to recover.

HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other demands placed upon them”.

There will be times when everyone feels that things are getting on top of them and they are unable to cope. It affects people in different ways, at different times and is often the result of both personal and professional issues.

What causes stress at work?

The HSE has identified six key risk factors that can cause stress at work:

  • the demands of the job;
  • an individual’s control over their work;
  • the support received from managers and colleagues;
  • employee relationships;
  • an individual’s role in the organisation;
  • how change is managed in the organisation.

The most common factors cited as causing stress are significant workloads, irregular working patterns and insufficient support. A workplace with poor management or lacking employee relations often create high stress environments.

What are the symptoms of work-related stress?

An employer may be alerted to the fact that there is a problem with stress in their workplace by: high absence rates, large staff turnover, increased complaints or formal grievances being raised about workloads or bullying, decreased performance, arguments and more reports of stress.

A change in employee behaviour can be a sign of work-related stress. For example, they could arrive for work later or be more twitchy or nervous. Other signs include:

  • mood swings
  • being withdrawn
  • loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
  • increased emotional reactions such as being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive.

What can I do if I feel like I am getting stressed at work?

Ideally speak to your manager as soon as possible so they have the chance to help and prevent matters getting worse. Don’t be embarrassed to admit that things are getting on top of you or to ask for help. It is really important that your employer is made aware that there is a problem as soon as possible. Once an employer is “on notice” that stress is an issue in its workplace and potentially causing injury to its employees, then they are under a duty to act.

If it is your line manager who is causing the problem, then speak to your employee representative (if you have one) or someone in the HR team.

Many employers offer a complementary and confidential employee assistance programme, so use it if you have access to one. Ultimately, if raising the matter informally with your manager does not improve matters you can use your employer’s formal grievance procedure to bring matters to their attention and seek resolution. For example, if you feel that you are being asked to cope with unreasonable work levels or feel you are being bullied.

What legal claims might I have regarding work-related stress?

There is no such things as a claim for “stress”. It will be necessary to try and find an appropriate legal claim to use as the vehicle for a work-related stress claim.  This will depend on what source of the stress in the workplace is. If it is being overworked, then a claim under the Working Time Regulations might be the best route to take. If stress is being caused by harassment or discrimination linked to a protected characteristic, then the Equality Act 2010 (the Act) may be the appropriate legal avenue.

If an employee develops a long-term physical or mental impairment to their health that affects their day-to-day activities as a result of stress, then they are likely to be considered disabled for the purposes of the Act. This triggers various duties on the employer, such as the duty to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for a disabled employee; failure to do so is disability discrimination.

None of these types of claims require the individual to resign first. However, if the situation is so bad that the employee wants to leave the offending workplace altogether, then they may seek to rely on their employer’s failure to act by resigning and bringing a claim of constructive dismissal.

Where an employee has two-year service then they will be able to bring an unfair dismissal claim. If they do not have the necessary amount of service then they should still be able to bring a legal claim of wrongful dismissal in the ordinary courts.

All employers have a duty of care to their employees as regards their health and safety. Among other things, that duty requires the employer to provide a safe system and workplace. A workplace that is poorly managed and causes stress among its employees is likely to be in breach of that duty. An individual may have a claim for breach of such duty.

Where an employer has ignored warning signs and work-related stress has led to a serious physical or mental illness, the employer may be sued for negligence. However, negligence claims cannot be brought in the employment tribunal, only in the ordinary civil courts.

How can I bring my claim?

It is generally preferable for individuals to try and bring legal claims forward in the employment tribunal rather than the ordinary courts, as claims can be started there without paying a fee. Additionally, there is no risk of having to pay the other side’s legal fees if the claim is ultimately unsuccessful (as there is in the ordinary courts).

However, this will depend upon the type of claim that is brought; as mentioned above, some claims such as negligence claims and large claims for breach of contract (including wrongful dismissal) can only be brought in the civil courts.

Claims for any type of discrimination and harassment, working time claims, breach of contract claims under £25,000 and claims for unfair dismissal should be brought in the employment tribunal.

Conclusion

Although there has traditionally been a stigma around mental health problems, individuals should not hold back from telling their employer that they are suffering stress at work (or at home). All employers have a legal duty to take care of their employees’ health, safety and welfare at work. By admitting to a problem, an individual places the onus on the employer to support them. Left to get worse, stress can lead to serious health problems.

Legal action should always be a last resort once internal mechanisms have been exhausted. However, where an employer has shown they are not willing to act on warning signs to try and prevent their employees suffering the effects of stress, bringing some sort of claim may be the only means to a resolution.

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