Legal Claims for Work Related Stress: Issues for Employers

Stress at work affects a significant number of employees in England and Wales. According to research, 6 out of 10 workers suffer from stress at work – with finance workers, employees in local government and in the health sector being the most stressed.

What is work related stress?

The Health and Safety Executive defines work related stress as an adverse reaction by an individual to excessive pressure at work. This can be physical and/or psychological. The HSE identifies six primary areas that may lead to work-related stress if not managed properly: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.

Many employees work in high pressurised environments without any problems. They may be expected to cope with high pressure at work and the demands placed on them and manage to do so. In fact, some level of stress is known to be beneficial for effective performance of tasks.

However, there is a fine balance between a healthy amount of stress, and a higher and sustained level of stress that is intolerable for employees. Where stress at work builds up to the point where it is unsustainable for the individual, they can become ill and may need time off work with stress-related illness.

As an employer, do I have a duty to my employees?

Yes, employers have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees, and this includes their mental wellbeing. This means you must conduct appropriate risk assessments and take reasonable, necessary action to prevent your employees from experiencing a stress-related illness because of their work.

These assessments are necessary so that you can note the potential risks to health and safety and well-being on your staff. Once these risks have been identified, you should then determine how they may impact upon the health of those people affected, removing them – or monitoring them regularly.

As an employer, will I be liable if an employee is ill with work-related stress?

If you have an employee who suffer a stress-related illness caused by their work (or the workplace), they may be able to make a claim for compensation for negligence. To succeed, the employee must prove that:

  • You owed a duty of care to the employee (see above for the legal duty of employers)
  • You breached that duty of care, for example, your risk assessment was unsatisfactory
  • The employee has suffered a physical injury (eg. a heart attack brought on by stress) or psychiatric or psychological injury brought on by stress, and
  • The injury was reasonably foreseeable

Could the employee also bring an employment claim?

The employee could also bring a claim for constructive dismissal. However, they will have to show they have raised a grievance with you as their employer, but that grievance has not been dealt with properly or effectively.

You should also be cautious about contacting the employee if they are off work with stress, because
this could – in itself – give rise to a successful constructive dismissal claim if it is not fair or reasonable to contact them.

If you have any concerns about employees and issues relating to work-related stress, you should speak with a specialist employment solicitor.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.