Work related stress
Work related stress can have any number of causes: bullying and harassment, being overworked, a lack of support from your colleagues or simply a bad working environment.
I am suffering from stress, what should my employer be doing?
Your employer owes you a duty to:
- Identify significant risks to your health under the Health and Safety Act
- Prevent you from being harmed where it is foreseeable and caused by work
- Consider any disability you have that has a substantial or long-term effect on your ability to work
Your employer needs to be proactive in considering what factors could cause you to be ill or make existing health conditions worse. They will expect you to be able to cope with the normal pressures of the job, unless they are aware of a problem.
Whether or not something is ‘foreseeable’ will depend on:
- Your workload – is it more than is normal for the role?
- Are the demands on you higher than others doing similar work?
- Are there any signs that you are suffering from stress?
- Could your health issues be classified as a disability?
Once you have told your employer of an issue, responsibility passes to them to intervene and take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of you suffering harm. This could extend to sending you home if necessary, and referring you to an Occupational Health expert. What is reasonable depends on the facts of each case.
What can I do if work is causing me stress?
First, raise any issues you have with a line manager or HR. If done informally, it is sensible to confirm your discussion in writing too, in case your employer later suggests they were unaware of the issue. Your employer may be able to successfully defend a claim if they can show that they were not made aware of your stress.
- It may be appropriate to review your job description, consider flexible working and ensure you are carrying out an appropriate amount of work.
- If you still feel that nothing has been done about the situation, you can consider raising a formal grievance. If your employer has a procedure, follow it. Grievances are time consuming for employers to deal with, so merely asking for a copy of the policy may be enough for them to sit up and take notice of your problem.
- If the stress you are suffering is simply too much for you to cope with and is affecting your health, you may wish to consider visiting your GP who can sign you off work until you have recovered enough to return. You are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks over a 3 year period if you are too ill to attend work.
- You may wish to consider making a flexible working request to help improve your health and decrease your stress levels. Your employer is not obligated to give you flexible arrangements but there are only a limited number of legitimate business reasons why they can refuse.
- If your working environment is intolerable, we can help you with a negotiated exit on the best possible terms.
What if it is not my work that is causing me stress?
Stress can be caused by factors outside work, including relationship issues, money worries, bereavement or if caring for someone else with ill health or a disability. Anything that could affect your work should be brought to the attention of your line manager or HR. If it is a personal matter, you can ask that it be kept confidential.
We have helped many clients make successful flexible working requests to make coping with outside commitments easier.
Can my employer contact me if I am signed off work because of my stress?
Yes. It is generally seen as reasonable and appropriate for an employer to do so as part of managing staff. It is often beneficial to avoid feelings of being isolated or ignored.
But your employer needs to be sensitive in situations where your illness could be aggravated by making contact. If it is not necessary to contact you, and where their efforts cause you more distress, your employer could be acting unreasonably and there may be grounds for you resigning and claiming constructive dismissal.
Is stress a disability?
Work related stress or stress-related illnesses can amount to disabilities and lead to extra rights under the Equality Act 2010. In order to qualify for protection, the illness must last (or be expected to last) for at least a year. As a result, many forms of illness and depression that are related to specific events such as bereavement, a marriage break up or short-term stress at work, are unlikely to qualify as disabilities.
Can I be dismissed because I am too stressed to work?
If you are suffering from a substantial level of stress, you may well be signed off as unfit to work by your GP. If you are off for a very long time, your employer is not obliged to keep your job available indefinitely. Your employer could potentially dismiss you for long-term sickness absence, or if they consider you are no longer capable of carrying out your role – but they will have to carry out a fair process before doing so.
If your employer is considering dismissing you on ill-health grounds, the reason for your absence ought to be investigated. If there are signs of a stress-related illness, expert medical advice would usually be required. It may be that the stress is down to the way you have been treated by your manager, or overloaded with work. Or it may be that you are the subject of bullying, harassment, or discrimination. These are matters which can be addressed by your employer as part of the process.
Reasonable adjustments may help you get back to work – especially if you have a disability. If this does not prove possible, then your employer may ultimately be justified in considering a dismissal based on your illness. Should the investigation into your health show there is not a genuine reason for your absence, your employer might treat the absence as a misconduct issue.
I don’t want to return to work. Can you help me?
Yes. For many clients, stress will be so unbearable that they can’t see a long term future with their employer. In these circumstances, it may be possible for an agreement to be reached with your employer for your employment to end on mutually agreeable terms. This would usually result in a lump sum financial package being paid to you together with a job reference, in return for which you would agree not to make a Tribunal claim against your employer.
How and when to raise this will affect the chances of you getting the deal you want. It is best to take legal advice early, especially if the stress has been caused by your employer. We can work to negotiate an exit for you. If the legal and practical benefits of a proposal are not raised expertly then there is less incentive for your employer to reach an amicable solution with you.
We are very successful at negotiating exit terms for employees. When they are settled, you will almost certainly be asked to sign a Settlement Agreement which is a legally binding agreement setting out the terms reached between the parties. You will need independent legal advice on the agreement before you get paid. We can do this for you and it shouldn’t cost you a penny.
What do I do now?
This is where we come in. Employment law is all we do.
It can often feel like your employer holds all the power. They are likely to have experienced HR professionals or a solicitor working in the background. That’s why you need the best support and advice available. You need a specialist employment lawyer – one who will push for the best outcome for you.
We understand how it feels. We have helped hundreds of employees and because we act for businesses too, we know the tactics you’re likely to face from your employer. We know every trick in the book.
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