Saturday, February 11, 2012

Stress at Work by Andrew John

Work is often stressful but sometimes the pressure at work can make you ill. When the workload and demands of an employer upon an employee are so excessive that they cause stress and the employer does nothing to remedy the situation the employee may be entitled to claim compensation.

Stress can be triggered by a number of factors. The risk of unemployment in a difficult economic climate is one factor. Often the risk of redundancy is worse and more stressful than the loss of a job. Another stress trigger during a recession can be the reduction in backup support and increased workloads.

Stress is not in itself an illness or psychiatric disorder. It has been described as - an excess of demands upon a person over and above their ability to cope '. It leads to anxiety and depression and may often bring about disabling conditions such as dyslexia and epilepsy.

Although an employer is entitled to expect an employee to cope with the ordinary pressures of the work he or she is paid to do, there is an obligation for the employer to take action when it is brought to his attention that this is not happening and the work has become unduly stressful. If an employer takes action to remedy the stressful conditions it is unlikely that he will be found at fault.

In the leading case of Hatton it was said that an employer who offers a confidential advice service, with referral to appropriate counselling or treatment services, is unlikely to be found in breach of duty towards the employee. Recent cases however have shown that an employer needs to do more than just offer counselling services when made aware that an employee is suffering from stress.

In the case of Intel Corporation (UK) Ltd v Daw, Mrs D had made her employers well aware that overwork was causing her stress. Counselling was made available but the Court of Appeal held that this was insufficient. It would not have resolved the problem. There was a duty for the employer to take action such as reducing and reorganising the workload once they were aware of the harm being suffered to Mrs D.

In another case the employer was told by the employee that she was - cracking up - under the pressure of the job. The six-month sabbatical she asked for was refused and instead offered counselling. When she suffered a complete breakdown the employer was held liable.

For an employer good employee communication is the answer to avoiding a claim. Regular appraisals should be conducted to identify any problems before they become an issue.

The employees most at risk from stress should be identified by a good employer. It is likely to be the most conscientious worker who is most affected. The perfectionist is more likely to be vulnerable to stress than a less meticulous worker.

Counselling services should certainly be offered and made available but as was said in Hatton this does not make such services a panacea by which employers can discharge their duty of care in all cases.