International Stress Awareness Week: your workplace rights

Stress is a pervasive, ever-present reality in today’s society, impacting us all in one way or another.

30th October 2019

Recent studies estimate that stress and mental health have a tremendous impact on the workforce, costing upwards of £35bn per year in lost productivity.

Despite this financial impact, employers tend to consider it a minor issue rather than the significant problem that is, resulting in a workforce that feels ignored, underappreciated, and most alarmingly, unwell.

Every employer has a duty of care to try and alleviate stressful situations in the workplace and as an employee, you can seek legal recourse if you feel marginalised, harassed or develop stress-related illnesses at work.

To mark International Stress Awareness Week, occurring on 4th-8th November this year, Hannah Parsons takes a look at what the law says your employer needs to do about stress…

Your employer’s responsibilities

Your employer has a ‘duty of care’ towards you (and all employees), which means that they must do their best to prevent you from coming to harm in the workplace. As well as more obvious health and safety issues, they should also take measures to prevent employees suffering from excessive stress in their jobs.

They will be expected to do this as part of the risk assessment which employers (with more than five employees) are expected to carry out to ensure that any health risks are mitigated.

This means they need to have looked at the possibility of stress-related illnesses amongst their workforce and put steps in place to ensure this is dealt with.

This might include providing employees with information about how to reduce stress and what to do if they are struggling, supplying counselling services which employees can make use of, implementing processes in ways which will not lead to excessive stress among the workforce, and so on.

The exact details will depend on the kind of work that their employees are doing, but they must be able to show that they have thought about the issue and considered appropriate solutions.

What you can do

While employers are expected to take the initiative on tackling stress in the workplace, you would still be expected to let your employer know if you are suffering from it. You should also inform them if you think someone else is at risk from excessive levels of stress.

If you are bringing the issue of workplace stress to your employer, it is best to also come up with some suggestions for how they might be able to improve the situation (it’s often easier for the people doing the work to identify better ways for it to be done). For example, an improved workflow may reduce the pressure on you or other employees.

Another benefit of letting your employer know if you are suffering from stress is that it will ensure that they cannot insist they didn’t know about the situation if your stress worsens and you need to bring a claim against them in the future.

If you develop a long-term mental health condition as a result of stress in the workplace, that condition may amount to a disability under the Equality Act, which provides you with additional protection from discrimination.

Can you sue a company for stress caused by workplace discrimination?

If you have suffered discrimination in the workplace (which can be related to a number of protected characteristics) one of the categories that an employment tribunal can award compensation for is your ‘injury to feelings’.

The stress and upset that the discrimination caused can, therefore, be considered as part of any compensation awarded to the employee.

If the stress that you have experienced has caused you to develop a mental health condition, the employer can also be ordered to compensate you for that personal injury as part of any discrimination claim as well.

Are there any current laws regarding workplace stress?

If the stress that you have been under at work has caused you to develop a mental health illness, it is possible to pursue a claim for personal injury against your employer. You would have to establish that it was foreseeable to your employer that the stress that you had been under would lead to a mental health illness in order for the claim to succeed.

If you felt that the stress you were under was no longer sustainable and you resigned as a result, you may have a claim for constructive unfair dismissal on the basis that your employer has breached the implied term of trust and confidence by failing to provide a safe system of work.

Can you sue a company for stress related to job security in industries that are seeing more integration of computers?

It is possible to pursue a claim if the stress that you experienced caused you to suffer a mental health illness. However, to be successful you would have to establish that your employer was negligent in introducing technology that affected your job security and that it was foreseeable that it would cause you to suffer in this way.

It is likely to be an extremely difficult claim to make as a company is entitled to make business decisions such as introducing new technology or ways of working.

Can you sue for stress caused by a poor work environment?

As stated above, if the stress has caused you to suffer a mental health illness and you can establish that your employer allowed or created a poor work environment, and that it was foreseeable that you would suffer in this way, you may be able to pursue a claim.

However, we would strongly recommend seeking legal advice prior to making any claim of this sort.

Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created. Note that the information was accurate at the time of publication but laws may have since changed.

Hannah Parsons

Legal Advice Manager, Solicitor

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