Acas have released some guidance for employers and employees on how to manage stress at work. The guidance explains what we mean by stress, things to consider if an employee is suffering with stress, the relevant legal implications, and preventative measures too.

We will provide an overview of the guidance below which can be accessed here.

What is stress?

Too much pressure at work, home or a combination of the two can result in people feeling stressed. Whilst stress isn’t an illness, the symptoms of it can have a very serious physical and mental impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

The Health and Safety Executive define stress as, “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them.

Common side effects of stress can lead to burn-out (physical and emotional exhaustion), anxiety, depression and physical conditions, such as digestive conditions, skin complications, heart disease, back pain, migraines and headaches.

These symptoms and others can affect people differently and to different degrees of severity. There is no one reaction to stress and whilst some people can work well under pressure, for some this is not the case and it has the opposite impact.

What causes stress?

There are many things at work that can lead to stress, these will be job and person specific but some common examples provided by Acas are as follows:

  • Too many conflicting demands;
  • Poor working conditions;
  • Little control over how and when work is done or decision making;
  • Lack of support or encouragement from managers and others at work;
  • Bullying and conflict at work, particularly if not managed well;
  • Not having enough training or skills to do a job;
  • Feeling unclear about role or responsibilities;
  • Low trust and not feeling able to speak up about concerns; and
  • Changes within the workplace.

Stress can also be caused outside of work by things such as a bereavement, divorce, the menopause, caring responsibilities, poor health, and financial concerns.

With the ongoing cost of living crisis, there may be a noticeable rise in people experiencing severe stress with increased financial concerns and demands.

The law of stress

There are two areas of the law to keep in mind in relation to stress at work: health & safety and discrimination.

Health and Safety

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a duty of care on employers to protect their employees from the risk of stress at work.
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require all employees to make a ‘suitable and sufficient assessment’ of the risks to the health and safety of their employees at work.

Employers must also ensure they are following the law on working time (Working Time Regulations 1998) to make sure employees are not working more hours than they should, long hours, or long weeks without the legal rest breaks.

Employers should carry out regular risk assessments for the whole team which would ideally pick up signs of work-related stress at an early stage.  If an employer has five or more employees, a risk assessment must be in writing. It is, however, good practice to have a risk assessment in writing even if an employer has less than five employees.

Discrimination

Stress on its own is not classified as a disability, however the symptoms of stress could be.

The Equality Act 2010 explains, someone is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial or long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

If an employee is disabled, an employer has a duty not to discriminate against them because of their disability and has a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

Spotting signs of stress 

An employee does not have to tell their employer about any personal problems but if they do, they may be able to access work provided support such as counselling services, paid or unpaid time off to attend appointments, special leave and a temporary change in duties or working patterns.

Whilst stress would not usually be considered a disability, it may be appropriate to explore reasonable adjustments which can be temporary. See our previous article on reasonable adjustments for mental health conditions at work, which can be accessed here.

Some of the more common signs that someone may be suffering from stress are:

  • Poor concentration;
  • Finding it hard to make decisions;
  • Being irritable or short tempered;
  • Tearfulness;
  • Tiredness;
  • Low mood; and
  • Avoiding social events.

Support

An employer has a duty to their staff and should look out for symptoms of stress and take these seriously when noticed. They should be supportive and sensitive. If a manager does have concerns for a staff member, they should usually have an informal chat first, in confidence, to see if they can offer any support.

If someone is off with stress, consider on a case-by-case basis the most reasonable amount of contact. The aim is to prevent isolation and ensure there is support whilst off sick and help aid a return without being overbearing. Agree with each staff member what is reasonable for them.

When they do return to work, it is a good idea to have a return-to-work meeting to make sure they are ready to return and see if they need any ongoing support or adjustments.

Preventing work related stress – employers

Acas provides some good examples of things an organisation can do to prevent work related stress for their staff, including:

  • Have a clear policy on mental health and stress;
  • Address the causes of stress through risk assessments and employee surveys;
  • Encourage people to raise concerns;
  • Provide training for managers;
  • Support employees and acting quickly in response to concerns;
  • Promote a good work-life balance; and
  • Provide employees with access to support, such as occupational health and a mental health peer support programme.

Preventing work related stress – employees

There are things employees can do to look after their own health and wellbeing at work, such as:

  • Raising awareness of what is causing them stress;
  • Taking steps to reduce stress levels, such as taking breaks or going outside at lunch;
  • Telling their employer early; and
  • Making use of support and training offered.

If you would like any assistance with stress at work, please do not hesitate to get in touch and we’d be happy to help.