Since 1992, we have had an annual “stress awareness month”, which seeks to shine a light on current stress and mental health issues and trends. In recognition of this, the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are hard-hitting and emphasise the importance of tackling mental health in the workplace:
- 74 percent of UK adults say they have been overwhelmed and unable to cope
- 51 percent of work-related ill health arises from stress, depression and anxiety
- 55 percent of all working days lost are due to a mental health issue
The HSE’s definition of stress is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them” (HSE, 2018). Analysis suggests that the annual cost to UK business arising from mental health issues is currently in the region of a staggering £45 billion, a figure that has been rising year after year.
While many companies appear to be increasing their investment into wellness programmes, the numbers suggest there is still some way to go if we are to adequately address the human and financial consequences that are becoming more and more evident.
Your legal duties
Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work.
Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 places a general duty on all employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees (gov.uk, 2014). Furthermore, regulation 3 of The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees and to put in place appropriate and effective control measures (gov.uk, 1999).
The right to disconnect
In the spring of this year, the EU Parliament consulted on the right to disconnect. Following this, Ireland brought in a new code in April 2021 which provides a legal framework to allow workers to refrain from engaging in work-related tasks, such as emails, phone calls and messages, outside of their working time without facing adverse consequences.
However, this is easier said than done in some cases, particularly for smaller veterinary practices reliant on staff sharing information: especially those offering 24-hour emergency care.
What can you do?
When assessing and managing risks, the HSE strongly recommends that employers adopt its “management standards” approach (HSE, 2019). These standards cover six key areas of work design that can increase the risk of work-related stress if not properly managed (Box 1).
Practices should then implement the following five-step risk assessment process:
- Identify the stress risk factors
- Decide who might be harmed and how
- Evaluate the risks
- Record your findings
- Monitor and regularly review
This will enable you to put in place effective systems that will be the bedrock of a safer and healthier working environment. It should be noted that employers are only expected to do what is reasonably practicable. So, it is sensible to retain evidence to demonstrate what steps were taken to obtain and provide resources (eg laptops or IT solutions such as installing Zoom so colleagues feel able to connect virtually), as well as recording options that were considered but ultimately not implemented for various reasons (eg perhaps a lack of ability to increase server capacity restricting certain activities).
Some additional steps that you can adopt to alleviate workplace stress might include having an effective framework in place to detect signs of stress and mental health issues or ensuring line managers are not only trained to spot the early warning signs of mental health issues but can manage those issues sensitively. Remember that issues affect individuals differently so communicating with employees to understand their issues properly allows you to tailor support to each individual. Encouraging greater social interaction to bring employees together and recognising employees’ achievements and making them feel valued are beneficial actions, as is encouraging workplace wellness (eg through exercise and healthy eating). Other effective strategies include implementing flexible and/or home working or carrying out a refresh that makes the workplace more vibrant to create an uplifting working environment.
In a 2014 court case between Bailey and the Devon Partnership NHS Trust, it was held that a duty to assess risk in relation to stress in a workplace could arise at a much lower threshold and such an assessment might well put an employer on clear notice of the need to take adequate steps to prevent an employee from injury.
The challenge with mental health and law is that it is impacted by so many variables, for example some people thrive on stress whereas others do not, and so the causality of mental health issues is difficult to prove. The areas of law that stress and mental health are linked to (health and safety, personal injury, employment law and disability discrimination) are perhaps not drafted adequately to cover stress and mental health, but legally it may be tough to draft anything more specific.
The interesting point here is that we could see an increased volume of claims, and therefore regulatory interest, particularly if employers are unable to demonstrate proactive steps to monitor employee welfare. It is very apparent that mental well-being in the workplace is a key concern for the HSE and it can only be a matter of time before enforcement action is taken against employers who are not seen to be actively managing the risks.