How to manage stress in the workforce

How to manage stress in the workforce

The high-profile case involving headteacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life after an Ofsted inspection, has thrust the issue of mental health and work-related stress into the spotlight. It’s an issue that has gained increasing prominence in recent years, and the Covid-19 pandemic also served to highlight just how big an issue this is for employers, and society as a whole.

Many organisations, including Acas, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Information Commissioner’s Office, have published their thoughts on what’s required to improve mental health in the workplace. The Labour Party, too, has made clear that it will oversee greater enforcement of health and safety regulations in the workplace, along with specific measures to tackle involuntary zero-hour contracts, should it win the upcoming general election.

Under current legislation, all employers have a general, common-law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees, says Sarah Tahamtani, head of employment and a partner at law firm Clarion. “The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also 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,” she says. “This extends to mental health and taking reasonable steps to prevent and manage work-related stress.

“Employers must also remember that mental health conditions may be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if the condition or symptoms have a long-term, adverse impact on an employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Where this is the case, employers will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any potential barriers faced by the employee as a result.”

Prevention is better than cure

As with all health conditions, prevention is more effective than any cure, so it’s in employers’ interests to tackle the root causes of stress, particularly if they stem from the work environment itself. “To ensure that all employees are protected from work-related stress, a risk assessment must be carried out,” says Kate Palmer, employment services director at HR and employment law consultancy Peninsula. Any risks that are identified can then be tackled, and reasonable adjustments made.

Kayleigh Frost, head of clinical services at wellbeing provider Health Assured, says there are several wider measures employers can take to reduce the risk of people becoming stressed or suffering from poor mental health.

“Benefits for employers include higher levels of staff retention, engagement, skill-sharing and new ways of thinking and learning"

“Mental health training should be offered to all employees to support colleagues in mitigating their own, and others’, mental health challenges before it becomes a problem,” she says. “Having visible management is key to ensure that all staff feel safe enough within their team to confide in management if they are feeling stressed, whether this be just for a chat or to access support, such as an employee assistance programme.”

It’s important to foster a culture where people feel safe asking for help or speaking up about their difficulties, agrees Jim Moore, employee relations partner at HR consultancy Hamilton Nash. “There is still a significant stigma about depression,” he says. “If people are afraid that they’ll be treated less favourably for sharing that they're suffering, they won't speak up and the employer may only find out once the situation has escalated.”

Providing appropriate support

It’s also essential that employers provide appropriate support to help people back into the workplace after time off for a stress-related condition. A phased return to work and input from occupational health can be extremely valuable here, says Tahamtani. “It’s also important to listen to the employee about what they need and what their concerns about coming back to work might be,” she adds.

“Even if the employee doesn’t meet the definition of a disabled person under the Equality Act 2010, discussions around adjustments will still be worthwhile to reduce the risk of recurrent or long-term absence or other incidents or issues at work. The provision of something as simple as an additional break, for example, could make all the difference.”

Frost advises setting up a return-to-work meeting ahead of the employee coming back to ensure they are up to date on what has happened while they have been away. “This could be via a phone call or video call,” she says. “Once they are back in the workplace, holding regular meetings with the person is essential. This grants the person time to voice any issues they are having, providing essential knowledge of how to tackle any issues for leaders.”

As well as ensuring employers stay on the right side of the law, those taking steps to prevent mental ill-health stand to gain in other ways. “A workforce without any unnecessary stressors, and the right tools and support to deal with stressors they may face both in and out of the workplace, is more likely to be a productive, confident and content workforce,” points out Tahamtani.

“Benefits for employers include higher levels of staff retention, engagement, skill-sharing and new ways of thinking and learning. In turn, this will trickle down to the workforce, helping to carve a more inclusive and honest workplace culture.”

Published on
April 24, 2024