How can business owners better manage work-related stress?

Managing the mental wellbeing of employees is a matter of growing concern for many business owners, as the stress of the last 18 months has taken its toll on the workforce.

The number of working days lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety has steadily increased since 2017, rising to 5 per cent in the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Labour Force study. 

The COVID-19 crisis has seemingly compounded this trend, with the Stress Management Society recently identifying workplace disconnect, isolation, and lack of control during lockdown as contributing factors for a surge in stress levels.

With UK business now on the verge of a whole new mental-health emergency, what can employers do to protect their interests and those of their employees? Where do business owners stand legally when it comes to combatting the issue? And what can employees do if they don’t feel that their wellbeing has been respected?

What are the common causes of work-related stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as “the adverse reaction that workers have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.

According to statistics, ‘office politics’ (37 per cent) is the most common cause of work-related stress, followed closely by ‘lack of communication’ (34 per cent), then ‘the performance of others’ (33 per cent).

Interestingly, ‘Long working hours’, which ranked as the most likely stimulant of stress back in 2018, is now only the 7th most common cause, perhaps due to the changes in working patterns that have been introduced since lockdown was imposed in Spring 2020.

But whilst poor comms and a toxic working environment might deliver an increase in stress levels, there are a huge number of potential triggers to be aware of: 

  • promotion over and above skillset/experience; 
  • when a business undergoes change or restructure;
  • Ttght deadlines given with limited notice;
  • when workers lack decision-making rights and have no control over the way that they carry out their work;
  • an increase in workload or demand without knowledge of when or if additional support will be provided;
  • bullying and harassment in the workplace;
  • inefficient briefing processes.

What does the law say about work-related stress?

Legally, employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees, both physically and mentally. This means compliance with a number of laws including The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

These laws dictate that employers must carry out workplace risk assessments to identify any potential risks and to take, as far as is reasonably practicable, any measures which may control or reduce such risks. 

Depending on the circumstances, the Equality Act 2010 may also come into play, particularly if an employee’s stress levels can be linked to, are caused or exacerbated by, an underlying condition amounting to a disability.

Employers have clear obligations which are set out within the Equality Act 2010. Failure to fulfil or adhere to these obligations may render the employer liable for discrimination against the employee.

What can employers do to tackle work-related stress?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing stress in the workplace as each person will be unique in their ability to manage pressure at work, and of course, that ability may fluctuate over time depending on personal circumstances. Having said that, it is advisable that businesses implement a robust, coherent stress-management procedure in order to monitor any red flags and ensure no employee feels disengaged or ‘unseen’ whilst at work.

Actions that may be helpful include:

  • Depending on the needs of the employer, introduce a formal work from home policy or a hybrid working policy, which will give the employee more choice over their working patterns. This could help to reduce stress if employees are able to work from home for a proportion of the week.  
  • Introduce flexible working hours into contracts of employment and consider any statutory flexible working requests made by employees.
  • Schedule regular one-to-ones with line managers or department heads to establish any ongoing concerns.
  • Maintain an “open door policy” so that employees know they can speak to someone at any time.
  • Provide employees with additional support or training of either a personal or professional nature, if required or requested.
  • Disseminate regular business briefing communications to ensure everyone feels involved and remains invested.
  • Make counselling services available for staff who need additional support.
  • Begin holding frequent team-building or wellbeing events for staff to unwind or build social interaction.
  • Provide stress management or resilience training.
  • Place a maximum cap on working hours.
  • Ensure that employees take breaks during their working hours.
  • Consider psychometric testing when both recruiting or promoting within to fully assess the suitability of the candidate to manage the stresses of any given role. This will also highlight opportunities for training or additional support.

What can you do if your employer fails to acknowledge your work-related stress?

One 2020 survey suggests that an astonishing 79 per cent of British adults commonly experience work-related stress to some degree. Those who suffer the greatest may seek to take action against their employers if they do not feel that the appropriate steps were taken to mitigate this. As stated above, if an employee’s stress or other mental health condition amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, and they consider that their employer has discriminated them on the basis of their disability, the employee may seek to take legal action against their employer.

Whilst many stress complaints can be solved simply by having honest conversations in house, mental health matters. Employees should try to maintain an open and honest relationship with their employers about any stress or mental health needs. Further, and arguably more importantly, employers should offer continuous support to their employees and ensure that they are fulfilling their duties to protect the health and wellbeing of their workforce.

Sophie Wahba is a solicitor in the Employment Law Team at Wright Hassall, advising both individuals and businesses on a range of contentious and non-contentious employment law issues.

Wright Hassall is a top-ranked regional law firm, providing legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. The firm also advises on contentious probate, business immigration, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.

Photo via Pixabay.