Businesses operate in increasingly pressured times, with SMEs especially under stress as belts tighten and technology moving on apace. PAUL PEARCE COUCH looks at the best ways to identify members of your workforce who might be suffering from stress or depression before the problem escalates, and what to do if you find yourself with an employee who is suffering from a work-related mental health issue.

Businesses operate in increasingly pressured times, with SMEs especially under stress as belts tighten and technology moving on apace. PAUL PEARCE COUCH looks at the best ways to identify members of your workforce who might be suffering from stress or depression before the problem escalates, and what to do if you find yourself with an employee who is suffering from a work-related mental health issue.

We all have days when we feel a bit ‘down in the dumps’, but there’s a fine line between feeling stressed about occasional workload and becoming isolated, depressed and, in some cases, even suicidal.

A 2010 survey by the TUC identified that stress was by far the most common workplace health issue, with an astonishing 62% of their representatives putting stress in the top 5 of employee concerns. Clearly, research produced by any representative body will be skewed in favour of the employee; however businesses across the size spectrum are having to come to terms with the fact that stress and its related illnesses can have significant impact on both their operational efficiency and brand reputation, as claims for constructive dismissal, negligence and disability discrimination soar in the UK.
 

What exactly is work-related stress?

There may be several things that cause work-related stress: overwork, job insecurity, over-promotion, lack of training, bad working relationships, bullying/harassment, change and personal issues. The experienced and responsible employer will recognise that their organisation may be responsible for any or all of these and will understand that, beyond immediate business needs, they have a statutory duty-of-care to their employees.
Work-related stress and depression may manifest themselves in several different ways:

  • Unable to enjoy work in the way they used to
  • Losing interest in social activities with co-workers
  • Lethargy and disinterest in core tasks
  • Poor punctuality
  • Frequent sick leave
  • Becoming aggressive with employers, co-workers or customers
  • Lack of concentration on work
  • Lack of attention to personal hygiene, appearance, etc

If you suspect that a member of your team might be suffering from work-related stress or depression, the best way to make sure this is the case is to ask them. Tackle it fast. Of course, this should be done in a discrete and compassionate way, even if the employee’s behaviour or performance has been unacceptable. However, you should be aware that many employees who feel they are suffering from stress will leave the workplace and go to their doctor. If the problem has reached this stage, that is likely the last you’ll see of them for many months.

If you’re able to address the problem ‘in-house’, try to make the interview as informal as possible and absolutely non-judgemental. List the signs you’ve noticed and explain that your objective is to help them through whatever is causing the problem. Ask if they can offer an explanation for their behaviours themselves. If they’re not forthcoming, ask if the issue is actually work-related. It’s surprising how many people have problems at home that migrate to the workplace.

Is the stress caused by genuine overwork? If so, the obvious remedy is to try to reduce that workload, perhaps even temporarily, by distributing it fairly among other employees, or by assigning other resources if possible. However, any decision to re-assign part of an employee’s duties must be taken in consultation with the employee, as doing so unilaterally could give grounds for a constructive dismissal claim. If the problem is bad working relationships then steps should be taken to try to resolve those relationship issues, for example through workplace counselling or some form of mediation. If the stress is due to personal issues, it might be appropriate to consider allowing a short period of unpaid leave or a temporary period of flexible working.

Of course, there is a possibility that the employee’s ‘stress’ is caused by an inability to do the job, poor inter-relations with others, job security fears, or some other issue. Claiming stress may simply be a way of diverting attention away from the deficit of professional or interpersonal skills. If this is the case, the focus should go onto addressing those issues, rather than being sidetracked by apparent mental illness. To address these issues, try:

  • More frequent performance reviews
  • Setting up a structured and time-tracked workload (see How To Conduct Appraisals/SMART objectives
  • Further training
  • Mentoring
  • Disciplinary procedure

However sceptical the employer may be about the employee’s condition, it's always advisable to consider seeking a medical assessment. This is particularly crucial where the employee appears to have a stress-related illness, such as depression, as he or she may not be in a position to give an accurate picture of his state of health and the complaint might well be genuine.
The OHA should get as much relevant background information as possible and clear guidance as to what the employer requires him to address. Broadly speaking, this will involve an assessment as the employee’s current state of health and the causes of the problem, and any recommended steps to address the situation. Any recommendations that are reasonably practicable should be implemented. If a recommendation is not feasible, make a note of why.
 

How to make reasonable adjustments

In a bad case, an employee’s stress or depression may make him or her 'disabled' for the purposes of the Equality Act. You will then be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to any provision, criterion or practice you operate that places him at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people. Warning: a failure here will constitute disability discrimination.

Reasonable adjustments for an employee suffering from stress would be very similar to the steps already set out above and the approach that should be taken to identify those steps is in essence also the same, i.ee is there anything we can reasonably do to help? Advice from OH professionals as to possible adjustments will be particularly important as a Tribunal will scrutinise the extent to which you comply with any recommendations. Letters of instruction to OH should question specifically what, if any, reasonable adjustments can be made to the employee’s duties or working conditions, and proper attempts made to implement those which are practicable.

Immediately after the employee returns to work, you should meet with him/her to clarify your understanding of their current state of health to talk about any temporary or permanent adjustments which are to be put in place to facilitate his or her return, and to discuss any other points which the employee wants to raise. Make decent notes so there is no confusion later as to what was agreed.