Stress awareness

Employee’s workplace rights

Sarah Garner, Solicitor at DAS Law, takes a look at what the law says employers need to do about stress

Employer’s responsibilities

Employers have a ‘duty of care’ towards all employees, which means that they must do their best to prevent their staff from coming to harm in the workplace. As well as more obvious health and safety issues, they should also take measures to prevent employees suffering from excessive stress in their jobs. They will be expected to do this as part of the risk assessment which employers (with more than five employees) are expected to conduct to ensure that any health risks are mitigated.

This means they need to have looked at the possibility of stress-related illnesses amongst their workforce and put steps in place to ensure this is dealt with. This might include providing employees with information about how to reduce stress and what to do if they are struggling, supplying counselling services which employees can make use of, implementing processes in ways which will not lead to excessive stress among the workforce, and so on.

The exact details will depend on the kind of work that their employees are undertaking, but employers must be able to show that they have thought about the issue(s) and considered appropriate solutions.

Given that more people are now working from home, what responsibilities do employers have to alleviate workplace stress in their new working environment?

Employers have a legal duty under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure that their workforce are protected from stress at work, whether this be working from their place of work or those working from their home. 

Employers should conduct a risk assessment for all their workforce to ensure that their working environment is safe and hazard free, this includes assessing the risk of stress being a potential hazard. By conducting a risk assessment, concerns can be identified, and measures implemented to reduce the risk of stress to employees.

What employees can do?

While employers are expected to take the initiative on tackling stress in the workplace, employees would still be expected to let their employer know if they believe they are suffering from stress related issues. They should also inform their employer if they think someone else is at risk from excessive levels of stress.

If employees are bringing the issue of workplace stress to their employer, it is best to suggest how they might be able to improve the situation as it’s often easier for the people doing the work to identify better ways for any issue to be resolved.

Another benefit of employees letting employers know if they are suffering from stress is that it will ensure that they cannot claim they didn’t know about the situation if the employees stress worsens, and they need to bring a claim against their employer in the future.

If employees develop a long-term mental health condition as a result of stress in the workplace, that condition may amount to a disability under the Equality Act, which provides them with additional protection from discrimination.

Could an employee sue a company for stress caused by workplace discrimination?

As stated above, if the stress has caused an employee to suffer a mental health illness and it can be established that the employer allowed or created a poor work environment, and that it was foreseeable that employee would suffer in this way, the employee may be able to pursue a claim. However, we would strongly recommend that they seek legal advice prior to making any claim of this sort.

Could an employee pursue a personal injury claim against their employer for workplace stress?

If the stress that the employee has been under at work has caused them to develop a mental health illness, it is possible to pursue a claim for personal injury against their employer. They would have to establish that it was foreseeable to their employer that the stress that they had been under would lead to a mental health illness for the claim to succeed.

If the employee felt that the stress they were under was no longer sustainable and resigned as a result, they may have a claim for constructive unfair dismissal on the basis that their employer had breached the implied term of trust and confidence by failing to provide a safe system of work.

Could an employee sue for stress caused by a poor work environment?

If an employee has suffered discrimination in the workplace (which can be related to a number of protected characteristics) one of the categories that an employment tribunal can award compensation for is ‘injury to feelings.’ The stress and upset that the discrimination caused can, therefore, be considered as part of any compensation awarded to the employee.

If the stress that the employee experienced caused them to develop a mental health condition, the employer can also be ordered to compensate the employee for that personal injury as part of any discrimination claim as well.