Many people confuse pressure and stress, mistakenly believing them to be the same thing.

All individuals need an element of pressure in their lives if they are to reach their optimum performance level, but if a manager or indeed an employee (stress can affect anyone) perceives they cannot cope with the pressures they are faced with it is likely they will experience stress. So what can managers and their employers do to make sure that this doesn’t occur? Amy Paxton, Senior Employment Consultant at Croner, tells us more.

Employers’ duties

Currently there are no regulations dealing specifically with stress by name. However, there are implied duties to tackle stress under health and safety legislation including the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

In November 2004, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) launched its new Management Standards for work-related stress, which they expect all organisations to implement. The Management Standards acts as a yardstick against which organisations can measure their progress in tackling work-related stress and enable employers to target action where it is needed.

Factors associated with stress can be very costly for employers, including:

  • High levels of absenteeism
  • Increased staff turnover
  • Increased recruitment costs
  • Low productivity
  • Poor public image

Stress can be very harmful for employees. Most people know that stress can cause people to have symptoms such as high levels of anxiety and headaches. However research has indicated that constant exposure to work-related stress may result in serious illness, either mental or physical, including cancer and coronary heart disease.

Taking steps to reduce work-related stress can:

  • Reduce the costs associated with sick pay, replacement cover and recruitment
  • Strengthen an employer’s position with regard to employers’ liability insurance
  • Reduce the likelihood of a claim being made for a breach of a duty of care and improve defences against such claims
  • Improve the morale and commitment of employees
  • Improve relationships between members of staff
  • Improve relationships with customers

Most importantly, perhaps, reducing workplace stress will ensure that organisational responsibilities for health and safety are met.

Consequences of ignoring a problem

Over and above the requirements of health and safety legislation, there can be other legal consequences for employers who knowingly allow their employees to be subjected to levels of pressure that might reasonably lead to stress-related illness. An employee who becomes ill as a result of workplace stress may be able to sue the employer for damages for personal injury in the following circumstances:

  • The employee has developed a diagnosable psychiatric illness
  • The illness has – on the balance of probabilities – been caused (or partly caused) by factors in the workplace
  • The employee can show that it was reasonably foreseeable to the employer that he or she would become ill as a result of workplace stress
  • It can be argued that the employer acted negligently by not taking reasonable steps to prevent the harm to the employee’s health
  • The proactive approach to stress
  • Taking a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to workplace stress can save a great deal of money and bring many benefits. The causes of stress should be identified and action should be taken to prevent or minimise the risk factors before employees suffer stress
  • A comprehensive and proactive stress management strategy involves three elements of prevention and control, namely the primary, secondary and tertiary levels

1. Primary Intervention

Primary intervention is concerned with identifying the possible causes of stress and the level of risk to individuals and the organisation as a whole. This will be achieved through the process of risk assessment. For this level of intervention to be effective it is vital that all those involved understand the issue of work-related stress and are committed to taking action.

A stress policy and effective procedures should be put in place at this stage. The stress policy should contain a statement of intent, the health, safety and welfare policy of the organisation, details of the organisational structure and responsibilities and a description of the systems and procedures in place to either eliminate, minimise, control or treat stress in the workplace.

2. Secondary Intervention

Secondary intervention sets out to improve the overall situation in the workplace by implementing the recommendations identified in the risk assessment. This is likely to include helping employees to recognise and deal with the causes of stress, eg by providing appropriate stress awareness training.

Other outcomes of the risk assessment stage that might be implemented are: management training, eg in communication skills, interpersonal skills and team building investigations into any reported instances of harassment, discrimination, bullying, etc.

3. Tertiary Intervention

This stage deals with the treatment and rehabilitation of those individuals who have suffered ill health as a result of stress.

Where an employee is away from work and has a certificate or self-certificate that gives "stress" as the reason for absence, the first step is to try to ascertain whether or not there have been previous problems and whether these are work or home related.

It is critically important that there is a proper record of the employee's absences from work and the reasons for them. Any previous grievances raised by the employee should also be noted.

If the absence is of short duration and well covered by the sickness policy, there may be no further steps to take in terms of cautioning the employee, etc. What should happen, however, is that when the person returns to work their line manager spends time with them to establish the cause of the stress and what the organisation can do to help.

If the situation is likely to be of longer duration, the employer needs to take the same steps as they would take in any long-term sickness case and, at the same time, look critically at the work the employee has been doing, its complexity, impact and volume, and ascertain if there is any action which could be taken to minimise the stress.

Stress management: prevention and control

As a result of the individual nature of stress, the methods of tackling it may vary considerably from organisation to organisation. It is important, however that the aim of any such initiatives is prevention not cure.

Employers should take (and be able to show that they take) stress seriously. In addition they should show understanding towards people who admit to being under too much pressure. Encourage managers to have an open and understanding attitude to what people say to them about the pressures of their work and look for signs of stress in their staff.

With stress accounting for almost a third of all work-related illnesses, UK business owners and managers should not bury their head in the ‘stress’ sand. In fact early support for stress has proven to return nearly 95 percent of people absent from work due to stress in less than 14 days, as opposed to the average of 27.4 days.