Stress Awareness Month: Work-Related Stress and Formal Grievances

Home Absence Stress Awareness Month: Work-Related Stress and Formal Grievances
Stress Awareness Month Work Related Stress and Formal Grievances

The prevalence of work-based stress has become a pressing concern. In 2023, Health and Safety Executive data revealed stress, depression, and anxiety contribute to 49% of work-related ill-health cases, causing 54% of lost working days. Although specific sectors like human health, social work activities, public administration, defence, and education had higher rates, mental health work-related stress impacts all industries significantly.

HSE aims to reduce work-related ill health, focusing on mental health and stress as one of its five key objectives within its 10-year strategy from 2022.

As we approach Stress Awareness Month in April, we explore the interplay between work-related stress and employment disputes while examining strategies for effective stress management.

Understanding and Addressing Stress: A Priority for Employers

Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress in the workplace – but what is stress? HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. The NHS Every Mind Matters defines stress as ‘the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure’.

From mental and physical exhaustion to high blood pressure and increased consumption of alcohol or drug use, whilst some stress can be a positive motivator, levels of stress that are too high or long-term can have a severe impact.

There are 2 main pieces of health and safety law which cover work-related stress:

  1. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – This puts a ‘duty of care’ on employers to protect their employees from the risk of dealing with stress at work
  2. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – this requires all employers to make a ‘suitable and sufficient assessment’ of the risks to the health and safety of their employees at work

This means that by law, employers must:

  • Identify any risks to their employees’ health by carrying out a workplace stress risk assessment
  • Take steps to prevent or reduce work-related stress

Stress is not classified as a medical condition on its own. However, individuals are protected from discrimination if stress impacts their physical or mental health disability.

Six Leading Causes of Stress in the Workplace:

The HSE has identified six main areas that can lead to work-related stress not being appropriately managed. These are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.

Employees may express that they:

  • Struggle with job demands
  • Lack control over their work methods
  • Feel unsupported or uninformed
  • Face challenges in workplace relationships or bullying
  • Have unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Feel disengaged during organisational changes

It is impossible to draw up an exhaustive list of the causes of stress, but pressure at work is recognised as one of the leading causes of stress, along with things like bereavement and relationship problems. Therefore, effectively managing stress in the workplace is not something employers can afford to ignore.

Stress is not an illness, but it can make you ill. It can cause symptoms that affect how you feel physically and mentally. Recognising the signs of stress will help employers to take steps to stop, lower and manage stress in the workplace.

Signs and symptoms of stress in an employee

The signs and symptoms of stress in an employee will vary from person to person. Still, the following may be indicators that an employee is suffering from stress, work-related or otherwise:

  • They may display behaviours that are out of character like being irritable, tearful or verbally aggressive.
  • They may suddenly start making errors or missing deadlines.
  • Their general levels of absence may have increased. For example, they may be having recurring stomach problems and report feeling sick or exhausted.

Of course, the above are not always indicators that someone is dealing with stress at work, but the employer should be alert to any changes in behaviours, performance and attendance.

Signs and symptoms of stress in teams

Signs and symptoms of stress within a team may manifest as:

  • arguments
  • increased staff turnover
  • heightened reports of stress
  • frequent sickness absence
  • decreased performance
  • rise in complaints and grievances

Remember… these lists are not exhaustive.

Return-to-work interviews serve as valuable tools…

Employers should get into the habit of holding return-to-work interviews with staff on their return from sickness absence and should not be afraid to ask if their employees are dealing with stress at work.

If the employee is suffering from stress due to personal problems, they may not wish to discuss this at length with their employer, and there isn’t usually a lot the employer can do about external stressors, but it’s not reasonable to expect employees to ‘leave it at the door’.

Offering options like taking annual leave…

Perhaps they will benefit from taking some time off on annual leave as a stress-related work absence or may benefit from lighter duties, additional breaks or a temporary variation to their shift pattern. Often, these early interventions can make the difference between someone being able to continue to work or being absent long-term due to work-related ill health.

The employer is not there to medically diagnose…

The employer is not there to diagnose medically, but employers have a duty of care towards staff regarding their well-being and safety in the workplace. If they are struggling with work-related stress, this is something that the employer has a duty to take reasonable steps to resolve.

The sooner the employer begins managing stress in the workplace, the less impact it will have. If you think a worker is having work-related stress problems, encourage them to talk to someone, whether it’s their line manager, trade union representative, GP, or their occupational health team.

HSE Talking Toolkits can help line managers have simple, practical conversations with workers, which can help prevent stress.

Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from work-based stress by doing a workplace stress risk assessment and acting on it. This assessment should evaluate the risk of stress and its impact on mental and physical well-being, similar to how other work-related health and safety risks are assessed.

The risk assessment helps identify potential stress-related risks to employees and enables taking appropriate measures to ensure their well-being. It is beneficial to review policies regarding bullying, harassment, and discrimination and ensure that the first aid needs assessment covers physical and mental health requirements.

To protect workers from stress at work, employers should assess risks to their health. These example stress risk assessments from HSE may help.

Grievances: Addressing Work-Related Stress

Do employees who report suffering from stress at work need to raise a formal grievance?

Work-related stress often manifests through disputes and formal grievances. Frequently, this is the first sign that an employee is suffering from work-related stress, perhaps the employee has gone off sick or has raised their concerns whilst in work.

There are a variety of disputes that may trigger mental health work-related stress, for example:

  • Bullying and harassment
  • High work levels or unrealistic targets and demands.
  • Strained working relationships.
  • Changes to job roles
  • Being subject to formal proceedings such as disciplinary and redundancy consultations.

An employee may raise a formal or informal grievance citing work-related stress. It is essential to ensure that employees are reminded of their rights to raise a formal grievance, but it is not always necessary for an employee to do so.

If the matter can be resolved informally, that’s fine, but where an employee does state they wish to raise a formal grievance, especially if the nature of their concerns is very serious- such as bullying, the employer shouldn’t try to dissuade them from doing so.

The grievance procedure allows employees to air their concerns appropriately and sets out how they will be dealt with. Where work-related stress is concerned, the grievance procedure can effectively reach a resolution.

What if the employee is absent due to work-related stress but won’t engage with the employer- can we insist on dealing with the matter via the formal grievance procedure?

Always bear in mind that the grievance procedure is there to resolve disputes. It shouldn’t be used to ‘browbeat’ staff members, especially when off sick. ‘Forcing’ someone to raise a grievance often has the opposite effect of dispute resolution.

However, if the employee is on a stress-related work absence and appears to be unreceptive to attempts by the employer to resolve matters, this can be very frustrating because the employee is citing work-related stress as the reason for their absence, so it stands to reason that the employee will not feel able to return to work until their concerns are addressed, a familiar ‘catch-22’ for employers.

Often employees will need some time away from work initially to gather their thoughts before they feel able to discuss their concerns. Reach out to the employee and let them know that you want to resolve problems and that you will be in touch in due course, whilst also letting them know you are available if they wish to speak to you. Don’t be tempted to go in too heavy-handed or too early.

If the reasons for the work-related stress are due to strained employment relationships, mediation may be an effective way of resolving the issue. This can be via the use of mediation services or a meeting with someone impartial to the dispute with the aim of ‘clearing the air’.

Navigating Redundancy Proceedings Amidst Work-Related Stress

What advice is there for employers suffering financially and have had to commence redundancy proceedings, only for an employee to go off sick with work-related stress?

Absences for work-related stress can occur during formal procedures because they are stressful, especially redundancies. Absence due to work-related ill health, such as stress, doesn’t automatically mean the employee cannot continue participating in those procedures. Still, how the employer responds will depend on the individual circumstances.

For example, if you are in the midst of a redundancy consultation and an employee whose position is at risk goes off sick with work-related stress because they are unhappy that their role has been placed at risk unless they are medically unable to take part in the consultation, the employee should be reminded that the redundancy consultation is their opportunity to put forward any concerns or questions regarding their role being placed at risk and is there to try to avoid compulsory redundancy.

If the employee is absent due to work-related stress and raises a grievance stating that they believe their role may have been placed at risk for other reasons, for example, they allege discrimination, the redundancy process may need to be placed on hold until the grievance is resolved.

When embarking on a redundancy consultation, employers should be mindful of how stressful this can be for employees, not only those directly affected but also the impact this can have on morale.

Redundancy consultations that are poorly executed are more likely to result in work-related stress. Therefore, advice from Avensure should always be taken so that a redundancy consultation can be carefully planned and handled appropriately.

Need Support With Work-Related Stress and Risk Assessments?

Support Guidance

Avensure’s Health & Safety and Employment Law advisors are ready to support you in addressing stress within your organisation. From implementing stress policies, understanding HSE’s Management Standards, conducting workplace stress risk assessments and managing absences legally, we’re here to help. Additionally, we offer stress and mental health awareness training to empower your team.

Contact us today to learn how we can help you navigate stress-related challenges and fulfil your obligations. Click here: Avensure Contact!

As always, this article is a guide and not a substitute for taking advice; please contact Avensure for specific advice for your business.