UK: Seven Steps Employers Can Take To Reduce The Risk Of Being Sued For Stress At Work

Last Updated: 10 March 2010
Article by Michael B. Scutt

What steps can employers take to reduce the risk of being sued by employees claiming "stress at work"?

First, some background. Stress at work is a complex and wide-ranging subject, touching on many aspects of employment and personal injury law. The claims will arise either under the law of personal injury (in negligence) or under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA) or, alternatively for constructive dismissal and/or discrimination.  All four could be raised in the same instance, although it is not possible for an employee to sue in negligence and unfair dismissal unless the circumstances leading to the injury are independent of the facts relating to the dismissal.  Although many employers may feel "under siege" from all the rights that employees have, they should note that the law is not kindly disposed towards employees in this area: stress at work claims are difficult and expensive for employees to pursue successfully.  

No employer can be immune from ever finding themselves facing a claim from an employee, but following the tips below ought to reduce the risk of a claim arising or, if one does, of being successful.  There are many legal aspects to allegations of "stress at work" and care needs to be taken when an employee asserts that the employer has, in some way, caused him/her to become unwell.  Most allegations will state either that the employer has overloaded the employee with work or not provided enough support/resource to do the job properly or that a line manager has bullied/harassed/victimised the employee.  

It is also not uncommon for employees to claim that they are suffering from "stress" when they fall into dispute with their employers or disciplinary/performance management processes are commenced against them.  

How to mitigate the risk of these claims arising?   

1. Adopt best practice  

The Health & Safety Executive publishes a great deal of information on the subject.  In particular it has devised "Management Standards (http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards/index.htm) " which "define the characteristics, or culture, of an organisation where the risks from work related stress are being effectively managed and controlled. ... The Management Standards cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence." There are six management standards covering demands; control, support, relationships, role and change.  The TUC (http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/index.cfm?mins=37) and ACAS (http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1993) also publish useful materials on stress at work.  

2. Be aware.  

Carry out risk assessments of the roles your employees are expected to undertake and the workplace in which the role is to be carried out.  This is not only integral to the HSE's Management Standards but is a statutory requirement under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) and the Management of Health and Safety At Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW).  The HSWA applies to any employer with more than five employees and require "a written statement of his general policy with regard to health and safety at work of his employees".  The MHSW requires a risk assessment "for the purpose of identifying the measures he needs to take to comply with" his particular statutory duties. Breach of this requirement can make an employer liable at civil law. However, a greater incentive for compliance is that an employer who does carry out a proper risk assessment is going to be better positioned to defeat a claim for stress at work than one who does not because the risk assessment process should uncover any obvious factors potentially giving rise to stress.  An employer will only be liable in negligence if his breach of duty of care to the employee was reasonably foreseeable.     

3. Have a stress policy and adhere to it  

This might include providing employees with access to a counselling service or a telephone helpline. The courts look favourably on employers who do so, but the provision of such facilities won't be enough on its own to rebut liability.  

4. Act fairly and consistently  

Stress claims can arise from incidents of bullying/harassment and victimisation.  Put in place policies promoting equality in the workplace – and enforce them.  Claims for discrimination can arise, apart from any other considerations over stress and there is no maximum cap for compensation unlike with unfair dismissal claims. We see many claims where the situation has been caused by fellow employees displaying completely inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, or line managers being "over-zealous" in trying to fulfil their roles. Ensure that line managers manage fairly and in a "human" fashion.   An employee suffering bullying at work from other colleagues or line managers may be able to bring a claim under the PHA for "distress" caused.  

5. Contracts of employment (1)   

Ensure that you have the contractual right (either in the contract of employment or the contractually binding section of the Employee Handbook) to require the employee to attend a doctor for the purpose of a medical report.  This can be a useful tool if the employee is off sick for any length of time because it means you can get a medical report from an independent expert rather than relying solely on the letters from the employee's GP, who will often be very keen to be (too) supportive of the employee.  

6. Contracts of employment  (2)   

They should be drafted so that any entitlement to full sick pay (as opposed to statutory sick pay (SSP)) is in the discretion of the employer or, preferably, full sick pay will not be paid if an employee goes on sick leave immediately after having been asked to attend a disciplinary or performance management meeting.  Employees tend to become well again once they are not being paid.  SSP is payable in most cases (click here for main terms) for 28 weeks at the rate of Ł79.15.  Click here for more details on SSP (http://tinyurl.com/y86ekcg).   Amending employees' contracts of employment can be a complicated process, fraught with challenges of its own.  Please seek legal advice before deciding to do so.  

7. Act decisively  

If a stress at work problem looks like it might be rearing its ugly head, don't ignore it.  Take legal advice as soon as possible.  

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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