Reacting to reports of work-related stress in the workplace
This section outlines a method for dealing with reports of workplace stress.
2.1 Reactive responses to reports of stress
The outline in the box suggests a framework for investigating a report of work-related stress at work. It takes the same consultative process that you should use to investigate any health and safety issue. In some circumstances you may also need to establish whether the person can carry on working safely.
Responding to reports of ‘stress’
- Investigate the facts of the report.
- Make a decision about the work-relatedness of the problem.
- Discuss the results of your investigation.
- Suggest solutions.
- Ask for additional solutions.
- Agree on the implementation of the solutions.
1 Investigate the facts of the report.
- What does the person mean by ‘stress’ and how long has it been going on?
- Have they consulted a doctor? If so, do they have a diagnosis?
- You may have to report this as ‘Serious Harm’ (See section 7.2).
- Note: ‘Stress’ is not a medical diagnosis. A certificate stating that someone is unwell from ‘stress’ does not automatically constitute evidence of Serious Harm.
- An appropriate diagnosis from the treating doctor should relate to established diagnostic categories (see reference 5) and may require referral to a specialist.
- Nevertheless, a certificate citing ‘stress’ should be investigated by the employer.
- What work factors have led this employee to consider they are ‘stressed’?
- Are other employees doing similar work affected similarly?
- What workplace changes have occurred for the employee – have there been recent organisational changes that have caused problems for numbers of employees?
- Are there any significant out-of-work or personal factors?
If it is work related –
- Is it the content of the work?
- Is it how work is organised?
- e.g. too much to do, conflicting reporting requirements, no performance feedback, not trained for the sort of work.
- What do you as the employer think has caused a problem (if a problem exists)?
- Is the sort of business you are in known to be difficult for employees to cope with? See section 3.1.
- Is the stressor to do with the match of the person to the job?
- Is the stressor environmental:
- e.g. constantly dealing with difficult customers, unsupportive relationships at work, communication difficulties at work, the physical environment, the safety of the environment, shiftwork, particularly badly designed shiftwork, the prospect of violence or bullying.
- Are other people in the workplace experiencing the same problems?
- Is there evidence of organisational ’ill health’?
- Sickness rates, absenteeism, declining productivity, industrial relations problems, increased labour turnover, negative feedback from other staff, resignations from ‘stable’ staff, etc.
- Is the stress related to something in the person’s life outside the workplace?
2 Make a decision about the work-relatedness of the problem.
- That the problem is work related need not be accepted without question but employers should investigate with an open mind.
3 Discuss the results.
- Discuss the results of your investigation with the employee. Give him or her the chance to comment on any aspects they have not been involved in. Agree on the nature of the problem, its severity and whether it is work related.
- If you think it isn’t work related be frank with your employee. You may be able to offer some assistance in dealing with non-work issues, such as flexible hours, job sharing, budgetary advice, etc. while they cope with whatever life has thrown at them.
- Employees do not have to accept employers’ findings.
4 Discuss solutions.
- Discuss solutions – if you agree that it’s work related. Ideally, these solutions will address both the causes and the symptoms of stress.
- Ask for additional solutions that the person might think are necessary.
5 Agree on the implementation of solutions.
- Agree on the implementation of the solutions, and how they will be followed up.
6 Find solutions to reports of work-related stress.
- Section 3 suggests how to approach finding solutions which can involve:
- removing the stressors
- improving the ‘fit’ between the person and the job
- helping the person recover from the effects of stress.
- Tables 7.4 – 7.6 in section 7.5 of this guide carry more detail.
7 Communicate throughout the process.
- The parties need to communicate, to work together in good faith and to focus on a solution that both find satisfactory. This is where a robust employee participation system can add significant value through ensuring dialogue.
- Dealing with problems before they escalate is always best practice. The Act is about assessing the potential for harm and taking some practicable steps to avert that harm. Hoping the issue will go away increases the risk of harm occurring, and may also cause attitudes and poor practices to become ingrained.
- As with all problem solving, the first step is to ensure that you have all the facts, and that you have looked at them calmly and carefully. The second is to talk the issue through with everyone involved, and identify not just the obvious cause but also any underlying causes.
- Employees affected by stress or feelings that they cannot cope may especially benefit from having a supporter present during any discussions. The workplace health and safety representative, a trusted colleague, a union representative or a family supporter can help make sure the issues are clear and all possible solutions are considered.
- Employers who need assistance can consult an employers organisation.
8 If you need further help.
- A variety of organisations can assist including:
- DOL and the Employment Relations Service – Contact 0800 20 90 20
- local Employers Associations
- unions or the CTU.
Documentation of the process will be important if personal grievance or legal action is a possibility.
2.2 Application in small businesses
Small businesses enjoy the potential advantage of having open, personal and prompt lines of communication. The six-step investigation summary suggested here is presented as a framework for action. It is not intended as a written reporting and recording template.
While small and large businesses have the same legal obligations, it is anticipated that, in many instances, the six items could be covered in a short conversation or series of short conversations.
2.3 What if employees don’t tell me about stress?
Employees may be reluctant to admit they are feeling ‘stressed’ by work. This admission can be seen as a sign of weakness, or reflect the idea that reporting ‘stress’ may be disadvantageous.
Employees should nevertheless contact their employer promptly when they believe they are not coping. If they are reluctant to do this directly, they should contact a Health and Safety Representative or their Union.
You can make it easier for your staff to discuss stress by indicating that, if a person is having difficulty coping, it may have undesirable consequences for your organisation and that you need to know about that. Reassure your employees that the information they give you will be taken seriously and treated in confidence.
- Employers should treat reports of stress at face value.
- Employees should contact their employer promptly when they believe they are not coping, either directly, through a Health and Safety Representative or through their Union.
- Employees should appreciate the stressful circumstances in which businesses may operate.
- The standard investigation protocol provided above represents one way of reacting to employee reports of stress. There will be others.
- Reacting to reports of stress need not be time consuming.
- There are advantages in knowing that employees feel stressed.
From 'Healthy Work Managing Stress and Fatigue in the Workplace', Section 2 (pages 23 to 26)