Comment: Mitigating stress in the workplace
Tina Chander, head of employment law at law firm Wright Hassall, looks at how businesses should be dealing with the rising issue of workplace stress.
The coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly increased anxiety levels for most people, but workplace stress remains an issue for many, even if that workplace is now a makeshift home office for either all or part of the working week.
Public Health England offers guidance to help individuals manage their mental health during the current crisis and mental health charities are expanding their support services, which businesses may wish to inform their workforce about.
There are good reasons for a business to try and mitigate stress in the workplace, starting with their duty of care towards the workforce, particularly given the current situation – businesses who fail to act may face a slew of workplace personal injury claims. There is also the business case that a stressed workforce will inevitably be less productive.
Impact on mental health
Key triggers identified for work-related stress include workload pressures, workplace interpersonal relationships and changes at work. Given the current economic disruption, job insecurity and social distancing, these factors are likely to be amplified.
Whilst many businesses are struggling with loss of trade and furloughed staff, many others are under enormous pressure to rapidly increase the volume of their services, food production, supply chain logistics, etc., whilst coping with a large influx of new, untrained workers.
Under these circumstances, it can be tempting to ignore the stress issue and concentrate on core activities, but the impact on the workforce can be so severe that businesses should consider some relatively simple steps.
Undertake a ‘Stress Risk Assessment’, which will achieve two things:
- It will enable businesses to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress;
- It will demonstrate the steps the business took to minimise their impact.
Given the unprecedented scale of upheaval, any existing risk assessment may not be fit for purpose, so performing a new assessment will demonstrate a responsive and flexible attitude toward protecting the workforce.
Many employers may have completed risk assessments during the first lockdown, however conducting a new and updated risk assessment will ensure that employers are able to adapt to new challenges which may have arisen.
A new risk assessment should seek to address potential problems such as whether the workforce has adequate space to work, whether they have any concerns arising out of lone-working or whether there are any potential new risks caused by working from home.
By identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them, a business can demonstrate at any later date, that it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care.
Businesses may implement the following policies: Coronavirus Policy, Flexible Working Policy and a Homeworking Policy.
In addition to this, businesses may wish to consider implementing a Stress at Work Policy, which can provide guidance to employees on how to handle stress at work, seek support from their employer and this can also include details of support services, if necessary.
Not only will this protect the business by implementing procedural changes and providing guidance for the workforce, but will also provide a level of comfort to the workforce who will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the crisis.
It also demonstrates the business is paying attention to the needs of its employees and is committed to their health and wellbeing.
Businesses should ensure the lines of communication between the workforce, line managers, the HR team and health and safety managers are open and accessible. NHS guidance suggests that connecting with people is a key factor to addressing stress whilst working from home.
The workforce should be encouraged to discuss their stress and managers should respond with consistent messaging, whilst noting any shared occurrences which might point to a serious issue.
Businesses are urged to keep in contact with the workforce by making regular telephone calls, conference calls and scheduling team meetings to ensure everyone can adjust to working from home.
Dedicating a member of the HR team to different sectors of the business can help by providing employees a direct point of contact should they want to discuss work-related stress.
If claims concerning COVID 19 related stress emerge, the businesses in the strongest position will be those that can demonstrate they took the issue seriously, whilst pointing to a recorded risk assessment and structured engagement with employees throughout.