Stress can be both the cause of, and a symptom of, problems in the workplace that can give rise to claims both in the Employment Tribunal and the Royal Court - and better stress management can help to prevent time-consuming, costly and reputationally damaging conflict.
How big is the issue? Reports show that 12.5 million working days were lost due to stress in 2017, and that 40% of all work-related ill-health cases are down to stress, depression or anxiety.
But beyond those statistics lie thousands more hours lost in absence and productivity through low morale, and wasted resources in sick pay, recruitment costs and resolving disputes.
While we might think of all of this as a very 21st century issue, the truth is that we've been dealing with workplace stress for literally thousands of years, and a particular group of ancient philosophers – the Stoics – have some meditations and lessons on stress that have resonance today.
The main cases of stress in the workplace come under six headings:
- A workload that's too heavy
- Employees feeling they have little say in how they do their job
- Too little support from colleagues and managers
- Breakdown in working relationships with colleagues
- A lack of understanding or different perceptions of a role
- Changes to duties and team structure
If not managed and resolved early, all of this can lead to claims to the Employment Tribunal, with all the disruption, extra costs and reputational damage that they can inflict.
Claims can fall under:
Personal injury – where an employee claims an employer has failed to fulfil their common law duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace
Breach of contract – it is an implied term of every employment contract that employers will take reasonable care not to cause psychiatric harm by reason of work environment or the character or volume of work imposed
Constructive dismissal - where an employee claims that their employer's behaviour has resulted in stress and breached their contract e.g. the implied duty of trust and confidence, forcing them to leave their job
Unfair dismissal – e.g. where an employee is dismissed on stress related capability grounds
But what about the Stoics?
The Stoics wrote that a meaningful life could be lived, and inner peace attained, by overcoming adversity, facing our obstacles instead of running from them, and controlling our thoughts and impulses. By acknowledging problems and tackling them, by preparing for the worst case scenario, and above all by accepting that our perception and interpretation of events is subjective, and so can be changed, we live happier lives.
How does this affect the workplace?
The Stoics would argue that employment law and the modern employment environment equip us to deal with these issues: Stoic employers must be mindful of the possibility of stress and the worst case scenarios of ill-health, damage to business and litigation arising from stress. A good Stoic would then tackle these issues head on - they would carry out a stress audit, ensure that all employees know how to raise concerns, and arrange mentoring or a buddy system to assist employees who are showing signs of stress. Above all, employers should be addressing the increasing reality of stress in the workplace and dealing with it, rather than sweeping it under the carpet.
Stoicism teaches us to look at the big picture when we feel stressed – to transcend our own egos and remind ourselves how small we (and our problems) are in the great scheme of things.
The current generation is the first to have the protection of employment legislation and independent tribunals, but it is not the first to have dealt with stress in the workplace or anywhere else. It may be that one of the best ways to deal with the modern stress epidemic is to look back and draw on the wisdom of ancient philosophy.
Rachel Richardson is Counsel in Ogier's employment law team with more than a decade's experience in workplace disputes. She is praised in leading independent legal directories for "excellent industry knowledge" and "getting to the heart of a problem quickly and commercially".
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