Dealing with workplace stress 09 Jun 2012

Stress claims at work arise in a variety of situations.

An employee may be struggling with a demanding workload, they may feel they are being bullied by a colleague or that a work relationship has broken down, or they may be concerned about a situation outside of work, such as financial issues, a marriage break up or health issues. Sometimes stress claims also arise after an employer has commenced a disciplinary or performance management process in relation to an employee.

Often the first an employer knows of an employee being “stressed” is when they receive a medical certificate from the employee’s doctor stating that the employee is suffering from stress and will be absent from work for a period of time.

When stress at work is an issue, what are employers and employees’ rights and obligations?

Employers

An employer is responsible for providing a safe workplace. This includes recognizing and managing “stress”. Workplace stress is not a diagnosis. However it is a description of a situation that employees may find themselves in as a result of pressure they are facing at work. An employer must know what exactly is causing the stress to be able to deal with it. An employer is usually not responsible for managing issues outside the workplace.

Employers are under a duty to ensure the health and safety of employees and others at the workplace. They need to have systems in place which monitor the work environment. Are there signs of stress such as increased absenteeism or sickness and are workload levels acceptable? An employer also must take all practicable steps to ensure that stress does not cause employees physical or mental harm. This does not mean that employers have to provide a completely stress-free environment. However they must take steps to try to safeguard their employees from the harm caused by stress.

Claims of stress should not be ignored. Employers will be liable for harm which is caused to an employee by the workplace and which they ought to have recognized but did not take reasonable steps to prevent from happening. Employers need to investigate any claims, reach a decision about whether it relates to the workplace, discuss their conclusions with the employee and ask for their feedback. If the issue is workplace related, the employer, together with the employee, should then work at finding and implementing solutions that either remove or reduce the risk of harm from workplace stress.

An investigation should involve talking with the employee to find out what they mean by “stress” and the length of time they have been feeling stressed, reviewing any medical evidence and, if necessary, asking the employee for further information. The employer should consider what workplace factors may be impacting on the employee (e.g. the type of work the organization does, difficult customers, high workload, inadequate training or supervision, interpersonal conflict between employees etc), deciding if there are any outside work/personal issues which may also be relevant, and reviewing if any other employees are having the same issues.

Solutions might involve removing the particular stressors (e.g. reducing the employee’s workload, suggesting alternative roles or providing greater training, and support), assisting the person to recover from the effects of stress (e.g. time off, temporary reduced hours or counseling) and improving the “fit” between the person and their role.

Even if the issue isn’t workplace related, the employer may still be able to help the employee, by providing them with time off, flexible or reduced hours, counseling or access to budgetary advice.

If issues of stress are raised in the course of a disciplinary/performance management process this does not mean that process cannot proceed. However, it may mean that the disciplinary/performance management process needs to be temporarily placed on hold while the issue of stress is investigated and addressed or it may be that both processes can happen concurrently. Timely legal advice in this type of situation is very important.

Employers must adequately deal with issues of stress. A failure to address an employee’s concerns could be costly, with an employer exposed to a possible personal grievance claim or a prosecution under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

Employees

Employees also have an obligation to take care of themselves at work

Employees need to advise their employers if they are not coping or if they are stressed, and what exactly is causing the stress at work. An employer is only required to act on what they knew or ought reasonably to have known about (e.g. is the job inherently stressful or is the employee, perhaps because of the nature or scope of their work, vulnerable to stress).

If employees see their doctor, they should ask that any medical certificate given sufficiently details what they are suffering from (e.g. depression, acute anxiety etc) and what they attribute that to (e.g. unmanageable workload). It is generally seen as insufficient to simply state that the employee is suffering from “stress”.

Simply stating that an employee is “stressed” and cannot attend work does not help an employer determine what work factors, if any, may be causing difficulties for the employee. In our view, without sufficient details, an employer is unlikely to be found liable for failing to adequately address an employee’s stress in any subsequent personal grievance claim or OSH prosecution.

Dealing with stress in the workplace need not be stressful!
Should you need any assistance with this, or with any other Employment matters, please contact Lois Flanagan or at Parry Field Lawyers (348-8480).