What is work-related stress?
It’s well recognised that stress at work is a massive problem. Any stress can reduce employee well-being and it’s well recognised (and accepted) that excessive or sustained work pressure can lead to stress. Occupational stress poses a risk to most businesses and compensation payments for stress are increasing. It’s important to meet this modern day challenge by dealing with excessive and long-term causes of stress. Absence management surveys show that stress is one of the most important reasons behind sickness and stress-related absence, which is increasing.
Pressure and stress
There is sometimes confusion between the terms pressure and stress. It’s healthy and essential that people experience challenges within their lives that may cause levels of pressure and, up to a certain point, an increase in pressure can improve performance and the quality of life. However, if pressure becomes excessive, it loses its beneficial effect and becomes harmful and destructive to health. Stress is the adverse reaction that people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them. It arises when they worry that they cannot cope. The pressures of working life can lead to stress if they are excessive or long-term. Causes of stress include excessive workload, inadequate training, lack of control or autonomy and poor working relationships, for example, a bullying line manager.
Signs of stress
First signs to indicate that employees are suffering from excessive pressure or stress are changes in behaviour or performance. The kinds of change that may occur are shown below.
The legal position
We must first make a statement of fact here relating to assumptions, presumptions and opinions of and by people. The term “mental health” should be construed not in a negative manner, but just the same as we talk about our physical health and well-being. Far too often the term “mental health” is construed as exceedingly negative, e.g., “that persons mad or a nutter” because they are diagnosed as having mental health issue. Such aspersions are damaging and upsetting and totally wrong and irrelevant.
Mental health and/or illness is just the same as our physical health and/or illnesses which can range from a simple cold to life threatening diseases. Out mental health can range from slight depression to serious psychosis and beyond. Stress can and does lead to both mental and physical illnesses and even disabilities.
If we consider that when we are very fit and well with no complaints, we can refer to that state as being at ‘ease’ with ourselves. When something is (or goes) wrong, it can be referred to as dis-ease and this is why specific illnesses or complaints are referred to as diseases.
Under health and safety legislation (in the UK) employers have a duty to undertake risk assessments and manage activities to reduce the incidence of stress at work.
There are three main types of legal duty that employees could use as a basis for a stress compensation claim:
- expressed or implied terms in the contract of employment that might be relevant to stress claims (for example the implied duties regarding health and safety and mutual trust and confidence)
- statute, including various pieces of health and safety legislation.
There is no statute specifically covering the issue of workplace stress: a selection of laws may be relevant but the law governing stress has evolved mainly from case law rather than legislation. It’s important for employers to keep up to date with the implications of recent cases as the law in this area is continuously evolving.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) encompasses mental illness, which does not have to be a clinically well-recognised condition to be covered. So ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’ and ’depression’ may be sufficient to qualify a person as disabled and therefore covered by the DDA, as long as there is a substantial and long-term effect (for at least a year) on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day duties and/or activities outside of work. Those with clinically recognised mental health diagnoses are very likely to be covered by the Act.
If an employee is covered by the DDA the organisation employing them has a duty and a responsibility to make reasonable provision and adjustments to accommodate the needs of that employee.
Dealing with stress at work
There are four main approaches that organisations can adopt to address stress at work. These can be used together as a single initiative or may be adopted individually in a more step-by-step well-being programme.
- Policy, procedures and systems audit – requires the organisation to undertake an audit of its policies, procedures and systems to ensure that it provides a working environment that protects the well-being of the workforce and that it is is able to identify troubled employees and provide them with an appropriate level of support.
- Problem-centred approach – provides a problem-solving model for dealing with stress and other psycho-social issues. It takes issues and problems that arise within the workplace and identifies why they have occurred and then finds ways to solve them. The identification process may involve undertaking a risk assessment, examining sickness absence levels, employee feedback, and claims for compensation and performance deficits.
- Well-being approach – takes the view that the aim is to maximise employee well-being. Although it uses similar tools to those used by the problem-centred approach it is much more proactive in identifying ways to create a healthy workforce.
- Employee-centred approach – works at the individual level of the employee. Individuals are provided with education and support in order to help them deal with the problems they face in the workplace. The employee-centred approach focuses on employee counselling and stress management training.
Measures to reduce workplace stress
To reduce workplace stress actions could be taken including:
- undertaking a stress audit and subsequently directing resources to reduce or eliminate the sources of stress
- people management skills development for managers at all levels
- the development of a supportive work ethos to encourage staff to discuss stress and seek support when experiencing stress.
When sources of stress cannot be eliminated, other interventions may be considered, such as:
- stress management and training in relaxation techniques (Meditation)
- promoting healthy behaviour and exercise (EQ emotional intelligence)
- personal counselling schemes.
Should an organisation have a stress policy?
While many organisations have developed stress policies others have found that a well-being policy is much more effective in maximising the well-being of their employees rather than merely reducing their levels of stress. This approach is in line with that taken by the World Health Organisation. Whether organisations choose a ‘well-being’ or a ‘stress’ policy the elements that should be contained in the policy are very similar.
The policy should:
- begin with a clear statement which shows that the organisation is committed to developing a working environment that promotes the health and well-being of the organisation and its employees
- be supported by senior management
- be kept under constant review together with other policies, procedures and initiatives to ensure that they maximise employee well-being
- provide for identification of and a regular review of the key well-being indicators
- ensure the provision of effective advice, support, counselling and training to enhance employee well-being
- incorporate the process for evaluating the effectiveness of all well-being initiatives.
Dealing with mental health in the workplace
People with mental health problems are not a uniform or homogenous group. Individuals will face challenges specific to themselves and many may need little or no support at work. However, discrimination against people who declare any mental health problems is still widespread even though a significant proportion of the workforce will face mental health difficulties during their working life.
Employers who wish to create a healthy work environment will recognise the need to establish policies and procedures in the area of mental health that set out a tangible programme with measurable targets and an effective auditing process. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommend that a mental health policy should be an integral part of any organisation’s health and safety at work policy. Such an initiative demonstrates that the organisation recognises and accepts that mental health is an important issue and emphasises the organisation’s commitment to promoting the mental health of its workforce.
Owing to fear of discrimination, potential employees may choose not to disclose a mental health problem in their application or at the interview stage. It is important for the organisation to:
- make it known at the recruitment stage that it is willing to make reasonable adjustments for disabled applicants and that this policy includes people with a mental health problem.
- ensure that all employees understand the concept of adjustment within the organisation’s equal opportunities policy.
When drawing up the job description and person specification, care should be taken to enable reasonable adjustments to be made to accommodate people with a mental health problem. Steps should be taken to:
- distinguish between essential and desirable requirements for the job and focus on what is to be achieved rather than how.
- ensure that the mental or emotional elements are identified, specifically the ability to meet set work schedules.
Adjustments at work
Should an employee’s work performance give cause for concern it is important to determine whether the problem is related to disability caused by mental health problems. In such cases appropriate adjustments based on the individual’s circumstances can be made. When an adjustment is required the employee’s manager will need to know that this is the case, but neither the manager nor fellow employees need to be told the medical reason behind the decision. Through the equal opportunities policy, all employees should understand the benefits to be derived from the use of adjustments.
Clinical and professional advice
As with physical disability there will be occasions when specialist advice is needed to assist someone with a mental health problem. This may be when:
- there are frequent short-term and/or long-term absences from work
- the employee appears to be experiencing side-effects from medication
- perceived unusual behaviour patterns take place.
There should be a procedure in place to ensure that managers are confident about what action to take in seeking advice. Advice should be sought only on specific issues directly related to the person’s employment. Decisions affecting the employee should be based only on medical advice as it applies to the specific work environment.
Some assumptions about mental illness may mean that psychotic episodes or perceived dangerous behaviour patterns may be dramatised and exaggerated. In an organisation with an effective mental health policy the risk of inappropriate action by employees or managers will be minimised. Instead there will be recognition that, as with serious physical illnesses, there are occasions when expert medical assistance is urgently needed to assist the person with a mental health problem.
As employers have a duty to make provision for emergencies that may affect the health and welfare of their employees, it is essential to recognise the needs of all disabled employees, irrespective of the disability.
The starting point for effective prevention of stress is good people management. Lambda Mi believes that people work more effectively within a participative management style and people are better motivated when work satisfies economic, social and psychological needs. Employers who pay attention to job design and work organisation and equip managers at all levels with people management skills will support employee engagement and wellbeing.
Lambda Mi Consultants can help individuals and organisations/companies in their processes and in education, training and advice.
Contact Lambda Mi today to arrange an Assessment Consultation today.
Consultant EQ Emotional Intelligence