Over 11 million days each year are lost due to work-related stress according to the Health and Safety Executive. The true socio-economic impact of these lost days each year is probably not fully quantifiable but the scale of the loss must mean the impact is significant. Employers can therefore no longer afford to ignore this problem and focus just on physical well-being.
Unfortunately, the law on stress is not set out in one place and is piecemeal, which means it is often difficult for employers to fully appreciate the scope of their obligations. Duties are set out in various pieces of legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the Working Time Regulations 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. A further dimension is added as employers also have implied duties, including the obligation to provide a safe system of work. Taking these duties as a whole, employers must however ensure that their staff are not exposed to excessive levels of stress when at work.
A nod to these legal duties in terms of working practices may minimise the risk of a legal claim but may not provide the support staff need. In tackling the issue, management needs to address the main contributors to workplace stress such as excessive workloads, long hours, bullying and harassment; all these factors should not be ignored as they have a negative impact on staff retention and engagement, absence levels and productivity. Given the scale of the problem, employers do need to act. A shift in approach does not need to involve a large amount of time and resources. As a starting point, there are some simple but effective strategies that can be adopted:
– Have clear polices which create a supportive working culture and provide managers with guidance as to how to deal with performance management, bullying and attendance issues.
– Encourage more conversations about stress. Talking will help you to understand the causes and therefore put in place the right support when it is most needed.
While these simple steps may provide a solution today, employers will also need to gear up and look to the future.
Management research and HR studies are identifying that changing demographics mean employers will need to consider new ways of supporting staff by being more aware of their needs and wishes to create the winning workplace. One thing is clear, employees want to ensure that they have both the mental and physical wellbeing to work for as long as possible in the most productive and efficient way. To attract and retain the best talent, the means of providing the right workplace culture to support employees in fulfilling these aspirations will need to be at the top of the HR agenda.
In line with these findings, the government wants to encourage more discussions about disability and health conditions in the workplace. The introduction of a framework for reporting on disability, mental health and wellbeing for larger employers although voluntary is one step in that direction. If work related stress is the growing epidemic that the level of lost hours is indicating, then employers need to act now.
Written by Helen Taylor
Helen Taylor is principal solicitor at FG Solicitors