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What is workplace stress?

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is defined as the 'adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'. The HSE notes six main areas which can contribute to work-related stress if they are not managed properly:

  • demands - employees can become overloaded with work

  • control - if staff feel they have no control over their work, this can lead to poor performance and stress

  • support - managers should be available for staff and provide them with sufficient support to avoid them becoming stressed

  • relationships - poor relationships between colleagues can lead to bullying and other grievances

  • role - employees should understand how their role fits into the bigger picture, or they may start to may feel anxiety about job security

  • change - any type of change can lead to uncertainty and insecurity, so it must be correctly managed

What rights do employees have in relation to workplace stress?

Under the law, all employers have a legal duty to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees are protected. This includes protecting them from unnecessary workplace stress which affects their mental health.

Therefore employers must conduct a health risk assessment, to identify any potential causative factors of undue stress. Furthermore, all employers with at least 5 employees must have a written Health and safety policy in place.

Further, Acas guidance outlines how businesses can assist their workers with mental health difficulties. Guidance issued by Acas is not legally binding, but courts can take it into account when investigating disputes and it should be followed. The guidance requires that companies should try to improve their employees' mental health and should make the workplace more comfortable for all workers.

Acas also provides a new list of actions businesses should take in order to protect their employees not only from stress but from other mental health issues as well. For example, paying attention to an employee who is not performing their duties effectively due to their mental health and, if needed, adapting their role in the workplace. Employers should also consider:

  • adapting the workplace to make it less stressful

  • allowing employees to work from home, and

  • giving employees emotional support both within and outside of the office

Is stress counted as a disability under the Equality Act 2010?

Stress is not automatically counted as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Under this legislation, a disability:

  • is a physical or mental impairment

  • has an adverse effect on the ability of an employee to carry out normal day-to-day activities

  • has a substantial adverse effect, and

  • has a long-term adverse effect

In practice, stress is more likely to contribute to mental illness which could be counted as a disability, rather than be seen as a disability in itself. Employers must make reasonable adjustments to take account of any disability, whether or not it has been caused by stress (eg they might need to take steps to reduce exposure to workplace stress which could exacerbate the disability). A reasonable adjustment can be anything from a slight change or alteration to the employment contract or working environment to installing new features or changing more physical elements of the job. For more information, read Disability and reasonable adjustments.

Furthermore, dismissal on grounds of disability (whether or not it was caused by stress) can amount to disability discrimination and unfair dismissal.

How can employers spot when an employee may be experiencing stress?

It is important to never make assumptions, however, signs that an employee may be suffering from workplace stress include:

  • changes in behaviour, mood or colleague interactions

  • changes in work standards

  • changes in focus

  • appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and a reduced interest in tasks that were previously enjoyed

  • increases in absences and/or being late to work

  • changes in appetite and/or increases in smoking and drinking alcohol

It may be difficult to approach an employee who is exhibiting symptoms of workplace stress, but it is important to attempt to resolve any issues at an early stage. A manager who believes an employee to be experiencing workplace stress should arrange a meeting to discuss the matters in private.

Similarly, employers should encourage employees to talk to their managers if they think that they are becoming unwell.

How can employers prevent workplace stress?

All employers should carry out a health risk assessment and consider potential exposure to stress in the workplace as one of the risks. For more information, read Risk assessments at work and create your Health and safety policy.

Employers should also consider:

  • having a clear policy addressing mental health and stress in the workplace

  • allocating resources to reduce and/or eliminate sources of stress (in line with their risk assessment) 

  • providing staff with adequate training and support to fulfil their role

  • training managers and management teams on how to identify stress in their teams and how to manage workloads effectively

  • providing more support to staff during periods of change and uncertainty 

  • creating a flexible working environment to help reduce stress levels (eg by allowing staff to work remotely, being flexible about start and finishing times and dealing with flexible working requests reasonably and in accordance with their Flexible working policy) and encouraging a work-life balance

  • supporting employees via assistance programmes, for example, occupational health programmes

Employees who have previously suffered from workplace stress can be encouraged to develop a Wellness Action Plan (WAP). This can be used to identify:

  • triggers, symptoms and early warning signs

  • how workplace stress may impact performance

  • what support employees need from their employer

It is important to identify what aspects of a workplace may be causing stress. As a starting point, employers should gather information on staff turnover, sickness absence and performance. Employees can also be involved, through meetings or surveys, as they will know what needs improving.

Read the Acas guidance on managing work-related stress for additional ideas on how to manage stress at work.

How long can you be signed off from work with stress?

There is no set amount of time for which employees can be signed off work with stress. This will ultimately come down to the discretion of the employer, in light of the specific circumstances. It will also depend on any diagnosis by a medical professional. For further information, read Managing sickness absence

Can you terminate employment or resign from employment due to stress?

Employees who suffer from stress due to an incident at work - or a pattern of behaviour - such as bullying or unsafe working conditions, can lodge a grievance if the situation is not properly addressed by their line manager. If their complaint is not taken seriously, they may potentially be able to resign and claim constructive dismissal.

Employers may ultimately decide to dismiss an employee who is unable to work due to stress. They can legitimately do so if the stress is either not medically diagnosed (in which case any associated workplace absence could be treated as misconduct) or if it has not been caused during the course of employment. However, the employer should first consider reasonable adjustments to help the employee back into work if there are underlying issues with stress in the workplace.

Any adjustment should only be made after a discussion and an agreement between the manager and the employee regarding what would be helpful. An agreed-upon adjustment should be recorded and monitored regularly to ensure that it is providing the required support. Even after an employee is able to resume their normal work arrangements, their manager should continue to monitor their health to offer support where necessary.

Ask a lawyer if you have any questions. For more information on mental health in the workplace, read How to promote mental well-being in the workplace.

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