What is stress at work?
Suffering from stress at work, otherwise known as work-related stress, is generally considered to be a negative and/or harmful reaction as a result of being overburdened by pressures and demands placed upon them at work.
What causes stress at work?
Work-related stress can be caused by a variety of factors, which include but are not limited to workplace bullying, a lack of support from colleagues, being perpetually overworked or a toxic working environment.
What are the responsibilities of my employer if I suffer from work related stress?
Employers have a few main legal duties, including:
- Identifying foreseeable and considerable risks regarding your health;
- Preventing foreseeable damage to your health which could be caused by work;
- Taking into consideration any disability (physical or not) that you might suffer from and which could have a long-term or considerable effect on your ability to work.
Employers are required to be proactive when assessing which factors could damage your health or make existing health conditions worse. They should take reasonable steps towards identifying risks as well as possible sources of stress which could cause you health problems.
Your employer, however, has the right to expect that you are able to manage with the day-to-day pressures of the role, provided they are not aware of particular issues. Whether or not stress and harm are foreseeable depends mainly on certain factors such as:
- Is the workload higher than usual for the role?
- Are the demands put on you more overbearing than those put on others doing similar work?
- Are there signs regarding your elevated stress levels, such as a changed behavioural pattern or having to take time off for sickness repeatedly?
- Could you be classified as having a “disability” due to your health problems? A disability would be a mental or physical impairment that has a considerable and/or long-term negative effect on your ability to carry out daily activities.
Once you have notified your employer of an existing issue they haven’t been aware of, they become responsible with intervening. Your employer should take all expected and reasonable steps, including sending you home if necessary, as well as referring the situation to occupational health.
The definition of reasonable steps depends on each case’s facts as well as your situation, in addition to the demands your employer places on you. Your employer is not always obliged to redistribute work towards other employees.
Can stress be considered a disability for the purposes of discrimination?
These introduce two potential areas, namely claims for personal injury (not brought in Tribunals) and discrimination claims.
If the cause of your stress is only a reaction to work’s difficulties then it is unlikely for it to be considered a disability according to the Equality Act 2010. The reason for this is that this type of stress is not automatically considered to be a mental impairment which affects your regular activity.
However, stress due to work or stress-related illnesses can still be classed as disabilities under the Act. Four sets of criteria must be met however:
- physical or mental impairment must be present;
- the impairment itself must be the cause for considerable negative effects;
- those effects must be on the long term;
- these long-term considerable effects must have a negative impact on your day-to-day activities.
Although mental health issues are more than enough in order to amount to a disability, qualifying for protection requires that the illness must either last or be expected to last at least one year or more. This is why many forms of depression and stress which are due to certain specific events such as a marriage break up, short-term stress at work and bereavement are unlikely to be considered disabilities.
Should you be covered by the Act, it becomes illegal for your employer to engage in:
- direct and explicit discrimination;
- disability-based discrimination;
- indirect discrimination;
- not ensuring that reasonable adjustments are made for your disability;
- victimizing or harassing you.
What to do if my work is causing me stress?
Usually, the first action often taken is bringing up the stress issues informally with HR or your line manager. Although it is an informal stage, it is best advised to confirm the discussion through writing so that you’ll be protected if the employer later suggests that they were not aware of the issue. If it can be shown that they were not made aware of your stress then the chances of the employer raising a successful defense increase.
The steps that your employer could take following the conversation include a review of your job description to make sure that you are not being overworked, offering you further training and regular meetings or exploring the possibility of flexible working.
In the case that you feel that nothing was done to improve the situation, there is the possibility of raising a formal grievance in accordance with the procedures of your company which should be readily available from your HR department. It is unlikely for your employer to want to follow the grievance path and there is a chance that asking for the policy is enough for them to recognize your problems.
If you are suffering from an exaggerated amount of stress which is affecting your health, you can consider visiting your GP who has the ability to sign you off work until you recover fully. You are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay for up to 28 weeks should you be too ill to attend work – your employer may also suggest an Occupational Scheme through which you will be paid more than the minimum statutory amount.
You might also want to consider flexible working as it could decrease your stress levels and help your health, especially if the stress is generated by caring for children or a disabled person. All employees have the right to request the possibility of flexible working from their employer who must reasonably consider all requests of this nature. Employers are not obligated to offer flexible arrangements, however there are only a limited number of reasons that are considered legitimate.
If there is no other way forward, you may also consider the possibility of a negotiated exit.
Could I be dismissed if I am too stressed to come to the workplace?
You might have been signed off work by your GP if you suffer from significant levels of stress that is impacting your ability to work. However, your employer is not required to keep your job open for you on an indefinite basis. They could dismiss you in the end for long-term sickness absence or if they believe that you cannot capably carry out your role anymore, however the process behind this procedure must be a fair one.
The underlying reasons for absence should be investigated as a result, and in the case of stress-related illness, expert medical advice should be sought, either from your own medical contacts or an expert appointed by your employer. Depending on the source of the stress, the employer might be able to address the issue directly. This includes causes such as poor management, overworking or bullying in the office.
If the investigation shows no good reason for the absence, however, your absence might be treated as a misconduct issue. This is considered a fair reason for dismissal.
If there is a good reason behind the absence and your condition is not the result of your employer’s actions then reasonable adjustments should be considered. In the event that this is not possible, your employer may be justified in considering a dismissal due to the prolonged absence – this is considered a fair reason.
In many cases, stress will make it so that you won’t be able to imagine working with your employer in the long term. In those circumstances, mutual termination of your employment may be possible once an agreement has been reached. Usually, this would result in a lump sum financial package being given to you alongside a job reference in return for not raising a tribunal claim against your employer.
It is best to take legal advice first in this very tactical situation. This is especially true when the stress has been caused by the actions of your employer. There is rarely much incentive for your employer to reach an amicable situation unless your legal and practical basis has been put forward.
If negotiations are successful, it is almost guaranteed that you will be asked to sign a settlement agreement which is the document that details the full terms as well as binds the two parties. Because of this reason you should seek out independent legal advice on the settlement which should be certified and signed by the lawyer in addition to bearing your own signature.