An employer’s guide to dealing with stress

An employer’s guide to dealing with stress

April 2024 marks stress awareness month, and it’s important to recognise how our own mental health, as well as that of those who work for us, impacts productivity and staff retention.

Anyone who runs a small business will know that stress creeps up at the most inconvenient times. It could be just before a key client deadline or a new product launch, and many managers will brush their own wellbeing aside to ensure they meet their commercial goals. Ignoring stress in ourselves or others can carry both legal and reputational risks and employers have a duty of care to their employees to ensure their safety - from a mental as well as physical health perspective.

Outside forces could be driving up stress levels more than usual too. Employees struggle with the rising cost of living while business managers juggle their own escalating expenses, for example. Employers are still coming to terms with new working patterns and arrangements that have emerged since the Covid-19 pandemic. Increasingly, companies want to go above and beyond their legal obligations and take more of a moral responsibility to look after their staff, but don’t know where to start.

What is the employer’s role?

The pandemic showed a side of business managers that many employees were not used to - we saw inside their homes and conducting crucial meetings from their kitchens. This was the start of a workplace culture shift, with many businesses increasing investment in mental health awareness and support.

Under the Health and Safety Act 1974, employers have a statutory duty to ensure, so far as is “reasonably practicable”, the health, safety and welfare of all their employees at work. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also require employers to carry out a risk assessment of the known risks to employees at work. Both of these laws cover protecting employees from excessive exposure to stress.

Taking a proactive approach to preventing stress is good for an employer’s reputation and productivity. Whether it’s through a formal wellbeing policy or informal measures such as reorganising work if someone feels overwhelmed, there are multiple ways managers can prevent burnout in their teams. Mental Health UK’s Burnout Report 2024 found that one in five workers needed to take time off work due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress in the last year, so being proactive can save businesses money.

The legal risks of ignoring stress

Failing to deal with high levels of stress in your business is not only bad for productivity and morale, but it can also run the risk of tribunal or even personal injury claims.

Daniel Stander, an associate at law firm Vedder Price, explains: “Whether stress can amount to a ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010 will depend on the nature of the stress, the impact that it has on the individual and the period of time it has lasted or is expected to last. Each case is likely to turn on its facts.”

Once a business has been made aware that someone has a potential medical or mental health issue, they should investigate how much this impacts on their ability to do their job and take reasonable steps to support them. “Under Acas guidance on reasonable adjustments for mental health, even if the condition is not considered by the employer to be a ‘disability’, it is open to employers to make adjustments to meet the needs of any employee to help them stay in work and work well,” he advises.

There is a risk of exposure to legal claims if working conditions cause an employee to suffer from unhealthy levels of stress. Employees could bring civil personal injury claims if their employer’s actions (or lack of) have caused them to suffer personal injury, and it was “reasonably foreseeable” that their breach of duty would cause this. A breach of this duty of care is a criminal offence, and there is no cap on damages in civil claims.

Further claims might include constructive unfair dismissal (if the excess stress has made the workplace so intolerable they had to leave), or harassment (where they have been on the receiving end of conduct that has led to their stress and the employer has not taken measures to protect them from this).

How to support your employees

As a business, you may offer informal mental health support already - perhaps you have an open-door policy for employees to share concerns - but there are ways to formalise this arrangement to make sure everyone feels safe to share any issues. While there is no legal obligation to have a wellbeing policy, Markel offers a stress and wellbeing policy template that can set out your approach. Mental health charities such as Mind also offer templates and action plans.

A policy could include the following:

  • An outline of your company’s commitment to employees’ wellbeing;
  • Details of how a manager and the company will deal with concerns that are expressed;
  • Details of measures to support employees such as employee assistance programmes or employee networks;
  • Details of related policies such as special leave, sickness absence or dignity at work policies.

Offering training, particularly in ‘soft skills’ such as coaching or conducting difficult conversations, can add to employees’ sense of belonging and help them to deal with stressful situations more easily. Another option might be to offer a mental health peer support programme or employee mental health network.

If employees are stressed about the cost of living, consider the benefits of paying employees at or above the level of the Living Wage, which is recommended by the Living Wage Foundation. This is calculated based on changing living costs and is higher than the government’s statutory minimum rate. If a pay rise is unrealistic, another option might be to offer a one-off bonus or enable employees to access their wages early via an advance salary or earned wage access scheme.

Don’t rule out non-financial benefits, either. Look into whether your insurance provider offers additional services such as access to an employee assistance programme (EAP), counselling or discounts for gyms or mental wellbeing apps. It’s well known that stress can lead to bad habits such as drinking alcohol or eating a poor diet, so nudging staff towards healthier pursuits that can reduce stress levels could also have a positive effect.

Dealing with stress

Although around a third of UK workers feel more comfortable talking about their mental health at work since the pandemic, according to Mental Health First Aid England, creating a “psychologically safe” culture where workers can talk openly lies at the centre of how effectively employers can deal with it.

Acas offers a number of pointers on how to talk about work-related stress with employees, including:

  • Making time for a meeting in the working day
  • Being open-minded to how that person might be feeling
  • Asking open-ended questions and listening to the responses
  • Working together on possible solutions

More and more businesses are training up mental health first aiders (MHFA) or mental health champions as people employees can turn to in times of stress.

Vicki Cockman, head of client delivery at Mental Health First Aid England, explains that one of the techniques MHFA uses with employees is to get them to understand their “stress containers” - the more we put into these containers, the more likely they will overflow. Getting rest and exercise can be positive coping mechanisms and help release some of the load, while over-work, too much caffeine and alcohol can have the opposite effect.

She adds: “There is no one size fits all. Whatever the approach, it is vital that diversity and inclusion is embedded into your wellbeing strategy, which in turn must underpin your workforce strategy. Equity and fairness are an important part of workforce wellbeing. What people get paid, the development opportunities and promotions that are offered, who gets recognised and heard are central to a positive, stress-free culture.”

If internal resources such as MHFAs are not available, signpost employees to external help such as your EAP or support from charities such as Mind or the Samaritans. Whichever route they take, it’s important to reassure them their concerns will be treated in confidence, unless there is a good reason such as the employee will need to take time off work, or their safety is urgently compromised.

Don’t forget yourself

According to research from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, 79% of small business owners find running a business stressful, and one in five feel like giving it up. There are a number of ways to prioritise your own mental health, such as hiring additional support; being honest with clients and managing expectations; or keeping lines of communication open with your creditors if cashflow is an issue.

Lesley Cooper, founder of WorkingWell, says it can be difficult to balance your own needs with those of your team. “Running your own company or team comes with significant pressures. But while pressure is an integral part of a dynamic business environment, chronic stress shouldn’t be,” she says. “Taking steps to address high levels of pressure before it triggers a stress response is crucial to managing your wellbeing and, by extension, your organisation. When protecting the wellbeing of others, it can be easy to overlook your own mental health. However, as a leader, you should prioritise self-care to recharge your battery and not become snowed under while supporting your teams.”

Research shows that almost eight in 10 adults experience stress at least once a month, so it’s inevitable that this will spill over into the workplace. As we spend such a high proportion of our lives working, the onus is on managers to ensure that employees are able to be open about stress factors in their lives, and address these if they are related to their job. The legal and reputational risks of not doing so are well documented, but taking a proactive approach to mitigating stress can not just avoid these but add value to your business in terms of staff retention, better customer care and improved morale.