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, 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.

How can I prevent work-related stress?

The simple answer is that you can’t. However, there are steps – while appearing to be a little ‘touch-feely’ for some British managers, will pay dividends in creating a contented and productive workforce.

  • Develop empathy – While all employees should conform to the rules of employment set by your organisation, don’t expect them to be clones. Each one has his or her personal agenda, aspirations, and personal motivations. Respect these and your employee will feel valued.
  • Provide for anonymous complaints and feedbacks – There is no better way to secure the trust of employees, and reduce employee stress, than to allow them to voice their feedback and complaints. Conduct a weekly meeting to address their concerns. Don’t take any negative feedback personally; try to address it in the best way possible.
  • Encourage healthy snacking – Does your organisation have facilities for snacks and soft drinks? Ditch the chocolate, fatty potato snacks and cola as a policy and replace with healthier options. There will be initial resistance but your employees will get used to the new culture.
  • Regular one to one interactions – If the seeds of disaffection start sprouting among your workforce, act quickly and identify any individuals who might be the root cause. In many instances it can be one personal grievance that causes unrest among the rest of the workforce. One way to tackle this if your workforce is small enough is to encourage regular one-to-one sessions with managers and supervisors to discuss any issues before they escalate.
  • Helping employees manage time effectively - Everyone gets swamped with work sometimes but Planning and Preparation can go a long way to preventing this. Do your employees seem to have a structured day or are they working one hour to the next without knowing what the next task is. Encourage scheduling and diaries.
  • Giving employees assurances that they will not be laid off – These days there’s no such thing as a ‘cradle-to-grave’ job, but people need reassurance that their job is at least safe for the time being. Within the operational needs, be as transparent with your workforce as possible. Avoid closed meetings if at all possible, unless the matter is staff-confidential. Above all, be positive, be realistic.
  • Ensure clean a clean and tidy workplace – It may sound like a no-brainer but it’s surprising how many workplaces are drowning in clutter, from offices to factories. We spend a greater part of our lives in our workplace and it’s vital that our surroundings are as conducive to productivity as possible. Paperless offices not only feel better but are good for the environment. Factories, workshops, etc, are notoriously untidy but, even here, improvements can be made that lift the spirits.

How to deal with absent employees

Dealing with an employee on sick leave can be tricky but needn’t be. The main thing is to maintain contact with your employee on a regular basis. Don’t simply let them leave the workplace for three months without interaction. This mustn’t be perceived as harassment, but the employer must be seen to be taking their duty of care seriously.

Appoint one person as your regular point of contact. If the employee is suffering with stress, under no circumstances allow anyone to contact them with work-related queries.
An employee who is too unwell to work is not necessarily incapable of communicating with their employer, especially because it's only by the employer’s knowing enough of the problem to deal with it that the employee will be able to return.

If the employee does not feel comfortable coming to the workplace then consider offering to go to their house to discuss the situation instead. Alternatively, ask the employee to set out concerns in writing. In all cases, whether a complaint of stress or a full-blown grievance, the employee should be asked what steps he/she believes should be taken to address the situation, but the employer is not bound by replies.

Where there's a reasonable perception that the employee is not really ill but just hiding from reality, or where he/she is ill but not taking proper steps to help you address their issues, then you are entitled to exercise against them any discretion you have to discontinue sick pay - the restorative properties of not being paid are often remarkable.

Dismissing a stressed employee

You should of course be seen to make reasonable efforts to assist an employee who is off with stress, but there may still come a point when you have to consider dismissing him or her due to continued inability to perform the role. Any dismissal needs to be handled sensitively and carefully to avoid claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.

Initially, you should obtain an up-to-date medical assessment of the employee’s state of health in order to understand the prognosis and what work he/she might be able to do in the short term. Consideration should be seen to be given to finding an alternative role before dismissing. If there's no such likelihood then it may be appropriate at that time to move to dismiss the employee.

In either case, no final decisions should be taken until the employee has been given the opportunity to discuss the proposed dismissal and to comment on the employer’s assessment of the state of health and ability to work. Whether or not the illness is claimed (or even proven) to be your fault, continued incapability can still be a fair reason for a dismissal.