We will all go through stressful periods in our life, and so it is important to understand that when stress becomes overwhelming, there are protections in place and steps to be taken to help relieve some areas of pressure; whether the stress is work related or caused by personal stresses.

Work related stress

It is understood that work related stress means, “a harmful reaction that people have due to an overload of pressures and demands placed on them at work”. This can be caused by a number of things, such as bullying, harassment, a large work load and this can be exacerbated by lack of support or a poor work environment. 

Employers responsibilities for work related stress

An employer has a legal duty to protect the well fair of their employees. Employers must 

  • identify significant and foreseeable risks to your health;
  • prevent harm to employees health that is foreseeable and caused by work;
  • consider any disability employees may have, that has a substantial or long-term effect on your ability to work.

Employers must be proactive in taking reasonable steps to identify and resolve excessive stress to their employees. However, Employees are expected to be able to cope with reasonable pressures of their job role.

In order to establish what may be considered a reasonable pressure of the job, an employer must assess;

  • Whether an employees workload may be excessive
  • Are there higher demands on one employee than others in the same or similar roles?
  • Are there any visible indications that an employee may be suffering from stress? – an example of this may be that an employee has repeatedly been off work with illness
  • Whether an employees health issues can be classified as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 is also a considerable factor for how much should be expected of an Employee. 

Non work related stress

Alternative stresses such as bereavement or illness of a loved one and breakdown of a relationship, can still inhibit the ability to work. In these cases, it should be encouraged to seek assistance from a doctor and make Employers or HR aware. Especially if the criteria for Disability under the Equality Act 2010 has been met. This conversation should be kept confidential by the Employer.

Stress can be a disability under the Equality Act 2010

There is a criteria which must be met to prove that stress is a disability.

  • The stress has caused a physical or mental impairment. 
  • This impairment must have substantial adverse effects;
  • Those substantial effects must be long term or expected to be long term. (Long term means for 1 year or longer);
  • The long-term substantial effects must have an adverse effect on normal day-to-day activities.

This criteria is often hard to meet with stress, as many times, stress often centres around short term events such as bereavement or relationship breakdowns and these stresses may effect ability to work. 

However, if the criteria is met, the Act makes it unlawful for Employers to discriminate due to the disability, directly or indirectly. The employer must ensure that the employee does not meet harassment or victimisation due to their disability and make reasonable adjustments to ensure they can come to work. This may include lessening workloads, creating flexible working arrangements or ensuring the employee doesn’t interact with someone who causes them harmful stress.

What employees should do if they feel stressed at work

If an employer is unaware of an employees issue, it is important that an employee notifies the employer so reasonable adjustments can be made to their job role to ensure the employees health is protected, this may even include sending the employee home if necessary, and referring the matter to HR and occupational health.

Medically signed off work for sickness caused by stress

If sickness caused by stress lasts less than a week, a sick note is not required by the Employer. However, if the sickness and stress is long term and a Doctor may recommend a break from work. The Employee must provide a Doctors note which excuses their absence from work. A Doctor will usually provide a note that covers anything from a few weeks to a few months. 

Where a doctors note is provided, it may be appropriate for the Employer to remain in contact with the Employee to ensure they are not feeling isolated or ignored and discuss an ongoing plan to aid them in their recovery. The Employer must take a view on whether this is appropriate or not and it is often preferred that this first point of contact is conducted in writing. It is preferred that no incidents or general work should be discussed during this time unless it is time sensitive to address, such as a redundancy or disciplinary issue. 

Dismissal due to long term stress absence

During long term stress absence which has been advised by a Doctor, an Employer holds no obligation to keep the Employees job available for their return where the absence is on an open-ended basis. An Employer could dismiss an Employee if they deem they are no longer capable of carrying out their job role due to the illness. However, the appropriate process must be carried out to ensure fairness. 

There must be an investigation into the underlying reason of the absence. In matters where the stress is caused by a poor work environment such as bullying, this must be addressed and resolved by the Employer. 

In matters where there are signs of illness from stress, it is important that either the Employer or Employee seeks medical advice. The Employee may use their own medical team, or one appointed by the Employer. The Employer may wish to appoint an occupational health therapist. An occupational health therapist is a mutual party whom advises steps that both the Employee and Employer can take.

In matters where an investigation finds the Employee has no legitimate reason for their absence, the Employee may treat this as a misconduct issue and dismiss the Employee.

In matters where the Employee is ill through no fault of the Employer such as; personal stresses, bereavements and relationship breakdowns , then the Employer should make reasonable adjustments to get the Employee back to work. Such examples of reasonable adjustments may include flexible working hours, the ability to work from home, etc. However, where these adjustments fail to improve the condition of the Employee, then it is fair for the Employer to terminate employment.