Employers must protect employees from stress – Here’s why and how

Andrew Heath · June 24, 2021

As seen in Employer News

Andrew Heath, CEO, WeThrive, explains why employers must take responsibility for mental health and tackle workplace stress

Many employers are unaware that they have a legal duty to prevent stress at work. But even if an employer hasn’t studied the legal rules, there is no doubt that stress has a negative impact on morale, productivity, absenteeism and the business as a whole. And the bad news is stress at work is getting worse according to the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Obviously, COVID-19 hasn’t helped matters with 38% of workers saying lockdown has had a negative impact on their wellbeing. Yet analysis of the HSE report shows that  COVID-19 is not the main driver of worsening stress levels.

Whatever the cause, we know that incidences of stress-related ill-health and absence are increasing. It’s a wake-up call to businesses who should be doing more to protect employees from stress.

As we reflect on last month’s national Stress Awareness campaign, it’s time for leaders and HR professionals to gather thoughts and put learnings into action. If there was ever a perfect time to implement a stress at work policy, it is now.

This article looks at what comprises a stress at work policy, the legal and moral obligations involved, what organisations need to be doing and how best to do it cost effectively.

Why should employers protect employees from stress?

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. Aside from the legal and moral obligations, mental health absence cost businesses in the UK a staggering £14 billion in 2020 (up £1.3 billion from the previous year, according to new research by Westfield Health).

The HSE’s Labour Force Survey shows an increase in the number of working days lost as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety (17.9 million days lost in 2019/20 compared to 15.4 million in 2017/18). This is a huge cost to businesses and a potentially unnecessary one.

Stress costs businesses money in lost productivity from absenteeism and presenteeism, and from increased staff turnover – over-stressed employees burn out and leave. Protecting employees from stress isn’t just a health and safety issue, it’s a core fundamental of business success.

Why employers need to run a stress risk assessment now

According to ONS data collected during the pandemic in June 2020, one in five adults are thought to be suffering from depression – a doubling from one in 10 before the pandemic.

There’s a worrying trend that mental health is fragile. The ONS reports that one in eight adults (12.9% of people) have developed moderate to severe depressive symptoms during the pandemic.

Individuals will have reacted differently to the pandemic – some taking it in their stride, others suffering from increased anxiety. Some will have experienced bereavement and some will be struggling in their recovery from COVID-19 (a survey on the prevalence of long COVID found that one in 10 respondents testing positive for COVID-19 still exhibit symptoms 12 weeks later).

While some people have flourished working from home, others have struggled with inadequate workstations, childcare and loose boundaries between homelife and work. The impending return to workplaces is fuelling a different set of anxieties.

Many staff are nervous about returning to the office and a stress risk assessment will be vital as employees go back into workspaces. Employers must talk to members of staff and listen to their concerns about the things that cause them stress at work if they are to successfully manage the transition to a post-COVID workplace.

What comprises a stress at work policy and why have one?

A stress policy raises awareness of the common causes of stress, lets employees know what they should do if they are experiencing undue stress and provides managers with guidelines on how to spot signs and offer support. It also documents your risk assessment.

An example of a stress at work policy can be found here. Further templates and tools can be downloaded here.

The objective is to provide employers and employees with a framework which will identify and prevent problems of work-related stress and help to manage them when they do arise.

Is a stress policy a legal requirement?

The law around stress at work is quite piecemeal – there are a number of statutes that cover it, including the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, The Working Time Regulations 1998, the Safety representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Race Relations Act 1976.

While a certain level of stress at work can be expected, employers are legally obliged to protect workers from undue and prolonged incidences of stress. A stress policy will help employers do that.

Where to begin

Before developing a stress at work policy, it’s vitally important leaders or HR managers secure the commitment of their management team – they will, after all, be the ones responsible for spotting the signs of stress and supporting employees.

The policy needs to be communicated effectively to all employees as buy in from them is important too. A culture of trust is essential if staff are being expected to be open and honest about how stress is affecting them and their mental health. Remember, there’s still considerable stigma around discussing mental health, particularly in certain industries. To coincide with the introduction of a stress policy, consider some mental health awareness talks/training as well.

A risk assessment should follow to establish the aspects of work that contribute to employee stress. A template can be downloaded from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website here.

Organisations which have five or more employees are required by law to write the risk assessment down. Those with fewer than five employees, don’t have to write anything down to show the assessment has been carried out. But it can still be useful to do this anyway.

How to find out what is stressing your employees?

Carrying out a risk assessment and developing a stress policy are important steps in understanding the causes of stress in the workplace and mitigating them. But stress levels in individuals fluctuate and what affects one person may not impact another. Every employee has a different response to challenges at work and that can change from day-to-day or depend on other influences from outside work.

Many organisations don’t gather feedback from their people or have only done it once. This makes it hard to gauge what is bothering employees. If there are new causes of stress and they aren’t covered in a stress at work policy, how will they get picked up?

The quickest way to learn what working conditions could be stressing your employees is to ask them. Regular pulse surveys are a great way to find out how employees are feeling. The future work landscape is strewn with uncertainties so regular check-ins with staff is now more important than ever.

Tackling work-related stress

Are you ready to find out what is stressing your employees? WeThrive’s FREE wellbeing risk assessment will identify your employees stress points and produce instant action plans.