Stress is generally defined as a feeling of being overwhelmed by a situation or series of events. Numerous factors at work can lead to potential stress and diminish our emotional and physical well-being if they go unsupported or unchecked.
Examples of Workplace Stressors
The HSE defines stress in the context of work as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’ and have identified 6 main work areas of work design that can result in perceived stress;
- Demands – this is about things like workload, work patterns, and the work environment
- Control – this is about how much say the employee feels they have about the way they do their work
- Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
- Relationships – this refers to behaviour at work and includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
- Role- this is about the employee’s role and responsibilities and whether the employee feels they are clear on these and does not feel there are any conflicts affecting their ability to carry them out
- Change- this is about how change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.
The HSA (Ireland) also recognise two further areas:
- Reward and contribution – this refers to pay and non-monetary benefits
- Indicators – this means that the employee is indicating that pressure at work is not affecting their health
SO what should i do if an employee reports work-related stress?
Unfortunately, often the first you will know about it is when you get a Fit Note citing “work related stress” after the employee has called in sick. This may be because of a variety of reasons :
- The employee feels they have tried to raise their concerns to their employer but feel they have not been heard
- The employee didn’t realise how stressed they were until they couldn’t face coming into work and, only on talking to their GP, did they identify the potential triggers
- The employee didn’t feel able to raise their concerns with their employer before going absent and so the GP is advocating for them by giving voice to their concerns
- The employee was under disciplinary action/investigation or performance management and went absence once they were notified of this
Managing ‘foreseeable’ work-related stress comes under the employer’s duty of care towards their employees. To prove the employer has met their duty of care, they must show that they did everything that was reasonable in the circumstances to keep the worker safe from harm.
Currently the guidance and courts recommend applying a risk management approach to cases of reported work-related stress. In practical terms this means meeting with the employee to identify / clarify their concerns (risks) with a view to identifying an action plan (controls) that can be implemented and monitored for effect (audit).
Risk Assessment Tools
There are various tools available online that are recommended for use as a framework (risk assessment) for this conversation that you can either use as is or adapt to your organisation
- HSE NI Individual Risk Assessment Template www.hseni.gov.uk/publications/individual-risk-assessment-template-and-action-plan
- HSE Stress Indicators: https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/assets/docs/indicatortool.pdf
Often resolving the workplace concerns reduces the employee’s stress reaction allowing their health to quickly return to normal so where possible carrying out the stress risk assessment is the preferred first step.
You may find that when you try to set up a meeting with an employee to discuss their concerns you will receive a Fit Note advising the employee is “unfit to attend meetings”. This is particularly common in scenarios where an employee feels ‘wronged’ by the employer or is undergoing investigation for possible disciplinary or capability issues.
In these situations, it is quite common for an employee to refuse direct contact with the employer. It is also usual for a family member or friend to ‘protect’ the employee from any dealings with the employer.
Try to avoid getting into a stalemate situation where the employee remains signed off which makes a return to work less and less likely. The employer is then left in ‘limbo’ not knowing how to proceed and also with a resourcing problem.
In such circumstances, it is important that you act quickly. It is a known fact that the longer someone remains off work the less likely a full return is possible. It is also likely that the employee’s condition may deteriorate from for example a ‘reactive’ anxiety to a more entrenched mental health condition.
It is also important to understand that although the person is unwell, the solution to the unwellness is unlikely to be any medical treatment. The person may be prescribed medication and therapy to help them deal with their illness BUT until the situation regarding work changes, they are highly unlikely to get better.
Therefore, it is crucial that the employer and employee meet to be able to move matters along. Until they are able to engage, nothing is likely to change. In these cases, it is prudent to seek independent advice on fitness to attend a meeting by referring the employee Occupational Health.
For more advice on how to manage work related stress, get in touch with us today. Our experienced professionals will guide and support you to make the perfect referral ensuring both your organisation and employees are supported prior to, during and after a period of sickness absence.