Employers have specific obligations under health and safety legislation, such as carrying out risk assessments/stress audits but in addition they also owe their employees a common law duty to take reasonable care to safeguard their health and safety, and this includes a duty to control stress levels at work.
Employers can be found to be in breach of that duty if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent the stress, it is reasonable to expect such an injury to be foreseeable due to that failure and the injury can be shown to be attributable as a result of that failure. Foreseeability depends on what the employer knows (or ought reasonably to know) about an individual employee. However, taking steps to safeguard workers, such as ensuring that the working environment is free from the sort of pressures that can have an adverse effect can be of assistance.
Some larger employers try to ensure sure that their managers are trained to recognise the signs of stress and know how to respond, and that they treat their employees to seek to minimises stress and promote a good working environment. Employers can be found vicariously liable for the actions of their employees in certain circumstances and a manager who makes employees unwell can leave the company picking up the bill.
An employer who is actively managing potential causes of work-related stress and preventing day-to-day pressures from becoming excessive is unlikely to be found in breach of their duty. The legal duty to carry out risk assessments means that it is important for an Employer to examine their workplace to identify any signs of existing work-related stress and any potential sources of stress that could put employees at risk. Employers sometimes monitor employees' working hours to make sure they have appropriate rest breaks or assess sickness absences or staff turnover rates within certain departments to flag up whether there are problems with high stress levels that may need to be tackled.
It is important for Employers to have in place policies that deal with bullying and harassment to be able to enforce the same but also to show that as a reasonable employer they have taken steps to try to prevent such behaviour occurring and therefore if one of their employee conducts themselves in a manner found to be consistent with bullying and harassment then they may do so of their own volition and not for the Employer reducing the risk of being held vicariously liable for the acts of the employee in question.
If an Employer becomes aware that an employee is suffering from work-related stress, they are required to take reasonable steps to prevent it. This can sometimes involve agreeing action plans with the employee concerned. Case law suggests that an employer who offers a confidential advice service to employees suffering from stress, with referral to appropriate counselling or treatment services, is less likely to be found to have failed in their duty of care, provided reasonable steps are taken at the same time to alleviate the problem – for example by reducing that person's workload or making changes to the way they work.
If and when stress-related complaints are made, they must be treated seriously, investigated fully and appropriate action taken at once. Prevention is often easier than a cure but Biscoes can assist in helping you put the necessary policies, training and risk assessments in place to reduce the likelihood of a claim but also deal with tackling the issue if unfortunately Employees feel they have been affected by stress due to work.