World Mental Health Day was on 10 October 2022. It aimed to raise awareness of mental health and for mental health problems to be treated in the same way as physical health. Many of us suffer with stress or mental health illness at times in our lives and sometimes this is caused by, or can affect, our work. Employers have a general duty to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all of their employees, which includes not only our physical health but our mental health too. In this blog I consider the management of work-related stress and mental health issues of work, the potential for either stress or mental ill health to amount to a disability and when a claim against your employer may arise.
Whilst some work pressure is healthy, too much can result in stress and be harmful to health. Stress will not normally amount to an illness itself, but it may result in or be a trigger for illness. The effects of stress may manifest themselves in both mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety now accounts for a high proportion of work-related ill health.
What Can Cause Mental Ill Health In The Workplace?
There can be one or several factors leading to stress and mental ill health at work, such as:
- Unmanageable workloads or demands;
- Poorly defined job roles and responsibilities.
- Lack of control over work;
- Unhealthy work-life balance;
- Poor relationships with management or colleagues;
- Organisational change or job insecurity;
- Limited career progression opportunities.
What Should Your Employer Do To Manage Stress And Mental Health In The Workplace?
All employers have a duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees; this includes providing you with a safe place of work, safe tools and equipment, and a safe system of working. Specifically, your employer should:
- Undertake risk assessments. Your employer needs to undertake a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the health and safety risks that employees are exposed to at work.
- Implement measures identified as a result of the risk assessment to avoid or combat risks, develop an overall prevention policy which covers technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors relating to the working environment; and
- Provide information to employees. An employer needs to provide “comprehensible and relevant information” to you about the risks to your health and safety identified by the assessment and the measures that will be implemented as a result.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published a wide variety of advice and guidance for employers and employees including a ‘Management Standards’ approach to managing the risks to you from work-related stress. These Management Standards refer to six “main areas of work design” (demands, control, support, relationships, role and change) which, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates. In relation to each area, the HSE sets out the standard to be achieved and what your employer will need to do to meet that standard.
ACAS has also produced guidance notes to assist employers and employees and recommends that employers improve mental health awareness within their organisation, create a workplace culture where staff feel able to talk about their mental health and support those who are experiencing mental ill health.
Managers should be trained to identify and deal with mental health issues since part of their role is to support team members so that they can perform at their best. Managers should look out for signs of stress. Stress can manifest itself in different ways but might include a decline or inconsistency in an employee’s performance, motivation or commitment. Managers may notice increased absenteeism or employees demonstrating behaviour which seems out of character such as temper outbursts, moodiness or crying.
Your employer may seek assistance and support from an Occupational health service or through an employee assistance programme or independent counselling service.
Your employer should, therefore, have systems in place to help combat stress and mental ill health at work. If you are struggling, talk to your employer.
Is Work-Related Stress Or Mental Ill Health A Disability?
A person who is suffering from work-related stress or mental ill health may be “disabled” for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010), if they meet the definition of disability set out in the Act as follows:
”A person (P) has a disability if P has a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities” (Section 6(1)).
Your employer needs to bear in mind the consequences of you being protected by the EqA 2010. By taking steps to manage stress and mental wellbeing at work, your employer may be able to avoid you developing a mental impairment or, where you have developed an impairment, your employer can ensure it meets its obligations (for example, by making reasonable adjustments).
What Sort Of Workplace Adjustments Might Be Reasonable?
There are a range of possible adjustments that might be suggested to enable you to continue working and your employer may be willing to implement changes even if you may not meet the definition of disability in the Equality Act 2010.
Changes may be made as to how you perform your role such as:
- flexible working whether in changed start and finish times or working from home;
- changes to your workspace, perhaps by finding a quieter area for your desk;
- changes to break times; and
- allowing time off to attend therapy or counselling sessions.
Changes may be made to the role itself, either on a temporary or permanent basis, such as:
- a temporary change to your duties (for example, changing shift patterns, reducing caseloads, reducing customer-facing work);
- reallocating some of your tasks or amending your job description or duties; and
- redeploying you to a more suitable role.
You may be given more support in your role such as:
- increasing supervision or support by a manager or mentor;
- having debriefing sessions after particular tasks;
- giving you access to a mental health support group; and
- identifying a “safe space” where you can take time out where needed.
What Liability Does My Employer Have If I Become Ill As A Result Of Work-Related Stress?
You should take advice on your particular circumstances but, employees complaining of work-related stress may consider whether they can bring any of the following claims:
As stated, your employer is under a duty to take reasonable care for your health and safety in the workplace. To succeed in a claim, you will have to show that:
- Your employer has breached the duty of care owed to you;
- This has caused you injury;
- An injury of that type, as a result of the breach, was reasonably foreseeable.
If you succeed in a claim you are likely to be awarded compensation.
Breach of Contract
You may argue that your stress/mental ill health is as a result of your employer’s breach of express or implied terms of the employment contract. You may also have a claim for constructive unfair dismissal. You may, for example, argue that your ill health has been caused by your employer requiring you to deal with unrealistic and excessive workloads or creating or failing to deal with a hostile working environment.
The right to bring a claim for unfair dismissal is only available, in most cases, where you have two years’ or more continuous service. To bring a constructive unfair dismissal claim, you must terminate your employment contract in circumstances in which you are entitled to terminate it by reason of your employer’s conduct. It is recommended that you take advice if you are considering terminating your contract, before you do so, since certain elements are needed to establish a constructive dismissal. An employment tribunal will still then need to decide whether the dismissal was fair. If the dismissal was unfair the tribunal can award compensation made up of a basic and a compensatory award.
If you have been signed off sick with stress and are dismissed, you may be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal. Again, for a successful claim, compensation may be made up of a basic award and a compensatory award.
If you are ‘disabled’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 you are protected from disability discrimination and harassment. If you succeed with a disability discrimination claim an employment tribunal will generally make an award of compensation and may also (or instead) make a declaration as to the parties’ rights and make an appropriate recommendation.
Harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act (PHA) 1997
Depending on the circumstances which you allege have given rise to work-related stress, you may be able to bring a claim under the PHA 1997, although such claims to date are rare in the context of the workplace. The PHA 1997 prohibits anyone from pursuing a course of conduct which amounts to harassment and which that person knows, or ought to know, amounts to harassment. As well as this being a criminal offence you may sue the perpetrator in the civil courts and claim an injunction or damages. Damages may be awarded for (among other things) any anxiety caused by the harassment and any financial loss resulting from the harassment.
Lincs Law Employment Solicitors Can Help You
If you are an employee or employer seeking guidance on workplace stress or mental ill health please contact us for a free enquiry on 01522 440512 or via the web chat or contact form on our website at www.lincslaw.co.uk.
Associate, Specialist Employment Solicitor
Lincs Law Employment Solicitors
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