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Stress at work


What is stress at work?

The Health and Safety Executive says that work-related stress is the “adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed upon them at work”.  A person who has work-related stress will eventually not be able to cope with the job. This will generally lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia and tiredness. These are the symptoms of a “psychological injury”.  Sustained pressure can lead to a serious psychological illness such as clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Tiredness, insomnia and anxiety can also lead to physical injuries.

Stress can be caused by;

  • excessive hours, workloads or demands
  • lack of job security
  • bullying and harassment
  • poor working conditions

There is no specific law relating to workplace stress. The law on stress has mainly come from case law. Employers have legal duties arising from express and implied terms in the contract of employment, as well as the law of negligence.  Stress is also impacted by some statutes.  In the case of Hatton v Sutherland and other [2002], the Court of Appeal described stress as “an excess of demands upon an individual in excess of their ability to cope”.


Disability and stress

Stress is a huge cause of sickness. Although it isn’t a psychiatric injury, it can make you feel anxious and depressed. Anxiety and depression can become disabling, which would then make you disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Disability is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on (the person’s) ability to carry out normal day to day activities”. Stress can cause a mental illness such as depression. If there is medical evidence of illness that has lasted one year or longer, such illness may be classed as a disability under the Equality Act. The Act requires that an employer should make “reasonable adjustments” to the working arrangements so that a disabled employee is not put at a disadvantage. You have a claim where your stress falls under the definition in the Equality Act and your employer treats you less favourably. There is no statutory limit on the amount of award a tribunal can make for a disability discrimination claim.


Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 

HSE is the overarching health and safety law which places general responsibilities on employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees. The general duty to provide a safe and healthy working environment applies to the prevention of stress-related ill health. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 give employers duties to assess the risk of stress-related illness in the workplace. You can get damages for stress related claims if there is a breach of these regulations.


Working Time Regulations 1998

In the case of Hone v Six Continents Retail Ltd [2006] the employer was guilty of a serious breach of the Working Time Regulations. Mr Hone was working 90 hours a week and asked for an assistant. Six Counties Retail ignored him and Mr Hone collapsed at work and never returned to work. The Court of Appeal said that the injury Mr Hone suffered was reasonably foreseeable by his employer, and he was given damages for psychiatric injury caused by stress at work.


The Employment Contract

There are implied terms in a contract of employment that are pivotal to stress claims. Important duties for stress claims are the implied term of mutual trust and confidence, and the implied term regarding health and safety.  Your employer must not behave in a manner that is calculated or is likely to destroy or seriously damage trust and confidence without a good reason. If this term is breached, you will have a claim against your employer.

The implied term regarding health and safety puts a duty on your employer to provide you with a safe place and systems of work. If your employer does not take reasonable steps to protect you from stress, you may have a claim for breach of this implied duty.

In Dickens v O2 PLC [2008] workplace stress triggered Ms Dickens disability and O2 was held to be liable. The Court of Appeal said that in cases of severe stress it is not enough for an employer to provide access to a confidential counselling helpline or to refer an employee to an occupational health professional. Ms Dickins, was employed as a secretary for O2. She had a good work record and had progressed to the position of regulatory finance manager. Ms Dickins told O2 on a number of occasions that she needed help with her work but they ignored her.  At the end of their February 2002 audit, she was exhausted. In March, she asked for a less stressful job and was told to hold on for 3 months. During a meeting she asked to go on sabbatical leave and told her manager that she couldn’t take any more. Nothing was done.  On 30 May, she repeated her request for a sabbatical and told her manager again, that she couldn’t take any more. At this point she was referred to occupational health. She became very ill soon after this, and was signed off work for anxiety and depression. She eventually left work permanently in November 2003.

Ms Dickins sued O2 successfully in the County Court for psychiatric injury negligently caused by excessive stress and was awarded damages in excess of £100,000. O2 appealed to the Court of Appeal arguing that the County Court Judge had misinterpreted the law. O2 said they were not liable because it was not reasonably foreseeable that Ms Dickens would suffer injury to her health from stress at work. They also said that they could not be liable because they had offered Ms Dickens access to a confidential counselling advice service. The Court of appeal disagreed with O2. The Court said that there was a “reasonably foreseeable risk of harm” to Ms Dickens. Ms Dickens had expressed and exhibited “signs of impending harm to health”. The signs were plain enough for O2 to have realised that Ms Dickens would “go over the edge” due to stress, and suffer an “injury to health” unless O2 took appropriate action to alleviate the stress. The Court also said that providing access to a counselling service is only an advantage where employees are unwilling to admit to their own line manager that they are unable to cope. In a case such as this, where the employee admits the problem and describes the severe symptoms she is having, providing access to counselling is not enough. O2 should have intervened and sent her home on full pay pending investigation by occupational health.


What you should do 

If you think you are suffering from work-related stress you should speak to your employer about it. The way you tackle it depends on the kind of stress you are suffering from;

  • Is there a policy on stress? Sometimes it is in the Health and Safety Policy. Have a look.
  • Inform your employer in writing that you are feeling stressed and ask your employer to remove or reduce the cause.
  • Request flexible working arrangements.
  • Join a trade union
  • Get your colleagues together and form a staff association.
  • Do you feel you are being bullied and/or harassed? What does your employer’s policy say about bullying and harassment? [ see How to write a grievance about bullying and harassment at work]
  • Find out if there is an Employee Assistance Programme that could help you, and use it.
  • Visit your GP and tell your GP how you are feeling and why.
  • If your employer is unable or unwilling to remove the cause of your stress, you should raise a Grievance.[see How to raise a Grievance at work]
  • If you are not able to resolve this through the grievance procedure, then you can apply for Early Conciliation with ACAS.

Updated:18/02/2020


Best of the Web

Health and Safety Executive – Work related stress and how to tackle it

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ACAS – Dealing with stress in the workplace

Royal College of Psychiatrists – Work and mental health

NICE – Mental wellbeing at work

HelpGuide – Stress in the workplace

 

 

 

 

 

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