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What is stress?

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them” and the World Health Organisation (WHO) describes it as “the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.”

While stress is a reaction or a response and will not normally amount to an illness itself, it may result in or be a trigger for illness. The effects of stress may manifest themselves in both mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and physical health problems, such as heart disease.

It is healthy for staff to have challenges to meet and, while challenges produce pressure, pressure can have a beneficial effect in improving performance and job satisfaction. Too much pressure can, however, result in stress and be harmful to health. Similarly, unhappy relationships with managers, colleagues or clients, or undertaking an unsuitable job can result in stress which may, in turn, lead to ill-health.

The legal position: Health and Safety

Employers have a general common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees. They have a duty to see that reasonable care is taken to provide them with a safe place of work, safe tools and equipment, and a safe system of working (Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co Ltd v English [1938] AC 57).

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 further imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations were introduced in 1999 which placed a heightened duty on employers. The key regulations to be aware of when it comes to managing stress at work are regulation 3 – risk assessments, regulation 4 – applying the principles of prevention, and regulation 10 – providing information to employees.

Risk Assessments

An employer needs to undertake a ‘suitable and sufficient’ assessment of the health and safety risks that employees are exposed to at work. The purpose of the assessment is to identify measures the employer needs to take to comply with the statutory requirements and prohibitions. The employer needs to review the assessment whenever there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid or there has been a significant change in the matters to which it relates. For organisations with five or more employees, the significant findings need to be recorded as does any group of employees identified as being especially at risk. (Regulation 3)

Conducting a risk assessment is a five-step approach:

  1. Identify the stress risk factors – consider how the Management Standards map onto the organisation currently. Focus firstly on wider organisational issues before considering specifics
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how – consider any gaps between the management plan and current practices. Use existing information and/or a survey approach to gather data. HSE has developed a survey tool of 35 suggested questions that could be rolled out to staff
  3. Evaluate the risks and develop solutions – you could use focus/discussion groups – aim to produce a set of suggested actions addressing specific issues
  4. Record findings – create and implement an action plan
  5. Monitor and review the action plan to ensure effectiveness – ongoing process

Where an employer implements any measures as the result of a risk assessment, the employer needs to apply the ‘principles of prevention’ set out in Schedule 1 (regulation 4).

Those relevant to stress are:

  • avoiding risks;
  • combating risks at the source;
  • developing a coherent overall prevention policy which covers technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors relating to the working environment; and giving appropriate instructions to employees.

An employer needs to provide ‘comprehensible and relevant information’ to employees about the risks to their health and safety identified by the assessment and the measures that will be implemented as a result (regulation 10(1)).

HSE Management Standards

The HSE has developed the Management Standards approach to managing the risks to employees from work-related stress, which it describes as an organisational, preventative process. The Management Standards are six ‘main areas of work design’ which, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates. In relation to each area, the HSE sets out the standard to be achieved and what the employer will need to do to meet that standard

An accompanying risk assessment has also been prepared to assist employers along with extensive guidance on undertaking the risk assessment. This can be found on the HSE website.

The legal position: discrimination

A person who is suffering from work-related stress may be ‘disabled’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010:

“A person (P) has a disability if P has a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” (Section 6(1)).

An employer needs to bear in mind the consequences of an employee being protected by the Equality Act. By taking steps to manage stress and mental wellbeing at work, an employer may be able to avoid an employee developing a mental impairment or, where an employee has or develops an impairment, the employer can ensure it meets its obligations (for example, in respect of making reasonable adjustments).

Managing mental health at work

More people with mental health conditions than physical disabilities lose their jobs each year. The cost to employers of employees absent with mental health conditions is between £33 billion and £42 billion each year.

Thriving at Work – the Stevenson/Farmer Review, which was published in October 2017, found that when employers supported their workers’ mental health more, the costs to employers (and the government) went down. Evaluations of workplace interventions show a return to the business of between £1.50 and £9 for every £1 invested.

The Review identified Mental Health Core Standards which apply to all employers regardless of size or industry and cover mental health at work plans, mental health awareness for employees, line management responsibilities and routine monitoring of staff mental health and wellbeing. Large employers and the public sector are expected to go even further, demonstrating best practice through external reporting and designated leadership responsibility.

Tips for supporting staff:

Lead from the top:

Leaders and managers have a duty of care towards employees and need to educate themselves in order to foster a culture that supports mental wellbeing. They can help stop the stigma around mental health by undergoing training designed to educate them on the concepts involved and how to communicate them to their team and the organisation.

It is easy to work longer hours and take fewer breaks when working from home – put a reminder in your diary when you plan to finish working and schedule your lunch break. If you can, try to avoid sending emails to staff outside of normal working hours, as this can create feelings of pressure and feel that there is an expectation to always be available. Make sure regular check-ins are scheduled in advance with your team members: have some daily scheduled chat time with each of them and schedule regular time in the diary as a team. Try to treat these as you would a face-to-face meeting – it is often much easier to cancel an online meeting than a face-to-face one and the effect of this on staff can be detrimental as they may feel that they are not a priority, which can hinder communication. Another option would be to earmark part of your day as designated contact time, so that staff know if they need to speak with you, you will be available.

Seek feedback:

Keeping tabs on the mental wellbeing of remote employees is not an easy task for employers.

Another way organisations can ensure they are supporting remote workers is by sending out anonymous employee surveys, targeting questions to assess levels of stress and anxiety within the organisation. The results from these surveys can predict if burnout is approaching and can also prevent bouts of depression.

Alternative methods of monitoring employee wellbeing could be by using regular employee forums or the one-to-one system. If scheduling one-to-ones, it is important to try and stick to these.

Create a peer support network:

According to a study carried out by Slam Recovery College, “Employment as a peer support worker brings benefits for the peer support workers themselves in every reported evaluation. The experience of valued work in a supported context, permission to disclose mental health problems, which are positively valued, all add to self-esteem, confidence and personal recovery.”

Ways to implement this could be by scheduling remote coffee breaks amongst remote workers, where employees are able to gather for a chat whether this be work-based or not to foster collaboration and create a more comfortable work environment.

Adopt an individual approach:

While some staff will respond well to one type of support, it is important to ensure that you do not adopt a one size fits all approach and be mindful of the needs of individuals. For example, a face-to-face conversation over coffee may be one employee’s preferred method of communication, whereas another individual may prefer to communicate via a messaging tool such as Microsoft Teams or WhatsApp. It is therefore important to ensure that different communication platforms are in place to account for these differences so that conversations around mental health can happen effectively.

Signposting:

You may already have a support network in place; however, this may not be well publicised and staff may therefore be unaware of the support which is available. It is important to promote any support you already have in place and investigate what else you could offer to staff.

This can be in the form of:

  • Employee Assistance Programmes
  • Mental Health Champions
  • Mental Health First Aiders
  • Mental Health Charities
  • Occupational Health

Many of the mental health charities provide free resources, such as wellbeing action plans that you could utilise to ensure that remote workers feel supported and engaged.

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