Stress at work and the pandemic

COVID-19 has not been kind to anybody. Many workers have had to balance childcare, home schooling and their workload from their kitchen tables rather than their offices. This has had a big impact on people’s mental health and has left a lot of people feeling more isolated than ever before.

According to the Health & Safety Executive, between 2019 and 2020 over 828,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety and over 17.9 million working days were lost as a result of this. AXA has undertaken research  on the topic. This has not surprisingly found that nearly two thirds of those in the UK and Europe have said their work-related stress levels has increased during the pandemic.   

Undeniably, the damage that stress at work can cause to individuals can be highly underrated, and because the effects are often psychological rather than physical in nature, they are not always immediately recognisable. Work-related stress can cause numerous and serious health conditions such as: anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleeplessness and headaches.

In the past, employees have been apprehensive about making work-related stress claims due to fear of the implications for them.  However, nowadays mental health is accepted as an important and valid aspect of a person’s wellbeing.  Many companies now have measures in place to assist their workforce to deal with stress.  

What duties do employers have to reduce the risk of stress in the workplace?

The two main pieces of legislation upon which a work-related stress claim is based are: The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

This provides that employers have a duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that their workplaces are safe and healthy. Employers must also take measures to control and minimise any risks identified.  

Further,  the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 state that employers must carry out a workplace risk assessment to identify any potential risks. Any measures employers take to control the risks must be based on their assessment.

Depending on the circumstances of the claim the Equality Act 2010 Equality Act 2010 may also be relevant – this legislation deals with discrimination of several different sorts.

However, in order to prove a work-related stress claim, it must be established that the employee has a recognised and diagnosed psychiatric illness. It must then be proven that the employer has breached their duty of care towards their employee, that their working environment posed a risk of harm and that the employer ought to have known the employee was exposed to the risk. In order to prove this foreseeability element of the claim, employees often have to produce GP reports from their doctors showing they have been off work as a result of this illness before.

What can be the causes of work-related stress?

Employees can be stressed at work for innumerable reasons, however, some of the most common are:

  • Bullying and harassment – both of which can take on many different forms in the workplace, whether it be racial, sexist, homophobic or religious, none of which are acceptable. The bullying can take place verbally or in writing and can place a great deal of stress on those it affects.
  • Excessive workload – the press has reported in recent weeks that some employees have been charting 100-hour weeks. Asking employees to work longer hours, or have the expectation that they will do so, can place huge amounts of stress on those employees. When employers have unrealistic expectations of how much work an employee can get done in a set number of hours this can also result in stress related illnesses. In order to rectify this situation an employer should make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s workload, such as reallocating tasks, giving you extra supervision or in some cases reducing your working hours. 
  • Inadequate training – different disciplines require different skill sets. Employees therefore require to be trained in the job they are doing. Without said training often workers can feel overwhelmed, resulting in higher stress levels. This is likely to be more prevalent during the Covid 19 pandemic since most workforces are currently working from home. Often employees can feel isolated from their teams and overwhelmed to a greater extent than usual.
  • Denial of rights – by law UK employees are entitled to a minimum amount of annual leave, breaks and rest periods. Denial thereof is not only illegal but can also contribute to an employee’s poor mental health.

The pandemic will have brought on a lot of new fears and anxiety surrounding this disease which will be hugely overwhelming at times for some.  How individuals cope with these emotions can clearly affect their wellbeing.   It is therefore important to recognise these steps and ask for help if required.

If you have been affected by stress at work and wish to discuss the matter it is important to contact an experienced personal injury solicitor to get the help and support you need.

David Armstrong is a Partner and Head of Personal Injury at Calio Claims, with over 25 years of experience in litigation and specialises in delict, libel law, medical negligence and health & safety legislation.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.