Preventing work-related stress: the leading cause of illness at work
Stress, anxiety and depression is the biggest cause of work-related illness in Great Britain and numbers continue to rise.
According to the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there were 914,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22. 17 million working days were lost due to stress in this period. The causes of stress and depression in recent years include rising workloads, lack of support, violence, threats or bullying, changes at work and most recently a major contributor has been the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect on people of homeworking and returning to working in the office.
The Law & the Employer’s Duty
Whether you’re a small business or a large corporation, under UK health and safety legislation and common law, employers have a duty to take care of employees health, safety and wellbeing. This includes a responsibility to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.
In addition, anxiety and depression could be considered a disability within the definition in the Equality Act 2010. If an employee is suffering with a disability, the Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to enable them to do their job. Further, employers must not discriminate against employees because they have a disability. This might include dismissing them, demoting them, or disciplining them for poor performance related to their disability.
Steps to take in managing stress in the workforce
It’s important that, as an employer, you familiarise yourself with your obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and always proceed with caution when considering taking action against employees who suffer from mental health conditions. That’s not to say you cannot discipline or dismiss employees whose anxiety or depression does amount to a disability; however, you must make sure that you make adequate provision for their disability, as failing to do so may mean potentially uncapped Tribunal awards if disability discrimination is proved.
The HSE stress website has a stress talking toolkit giving advice on how line managers can have simple, practical conversations with employees to help prevent stress at work. They help start conversations to identify causes of stress and identify possible solutions to enable the employer to then manage any identified risks. Depending on the size and resources of the company it may be practical for the information to be managed by an HR team, a stress champion or a health and safety team.
Conversely, employees can also look after their own mental health by being open and honest with their line managers about their difficulties and taking steps to support their own wellbeing including putting in work boundaries, making time for activities they enjoy and keeping active.
By investing in mental health support, implementing reasonable adjustments, and training your managers to recognise and address mental health concerns, you can identify mental health issues early and prevent them from escalating into bigger, more expensive problems.