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The Truth About Stress

Fergal Dowling's Column Employment Law Column for the Birmingham Post


It was recently reported that a press officer was taking his employers to court because, he alleged, the role he was asked to perform required him to lie.  He claimed that this resulted in him suffering from post-traumatic stress. 

How many employees in countless other roles are experiencing stress because they feel their bosses expect them to be, shall we say, economical with the truth, particularly given that many organisations still feel themselves to be in the grip of a recession?  Well known phrases, such as ‘the cheque is in the post’, spring to mind.

Stress levels are likely to have been on the increase, and not just for employees who could be performing their own roles plus the tasks of former colleagues who have been made redundant and not replaced.  Many employers are also likely to be struggling with pressures, such as looking to secure new orders to keep their businesses afloat and reducing headcount – the latter being a stressful experience for all parties.

Employers may face prosecution by the HSE if they fail in their duty of care and do not control/eradicate employee stress, regarded as a key cause of work-related illness.

The difficulty is identifying the presence of stress rather than just pressure in the workplace. Bosses may want to consider a stress audit, possibly a confidential questionnaire or series of conversations to identify the incidence of stress. They should also share the rationale behind any audit with employees so that they understand and contribute to the process.

Common areas giving rise to stress and so to be audited include:

  • The demands of a job - workload, shifts, environment
  • Role – ability to perform and how it fits within hierarchy
  • Control
  • Support from company & colleagues
  • Relationships
  • Change – management and communication thereof

The HSE would expect employees to be satisfied with all the above and that the company has systems to tackle issues. The outcomes of the audit therefore should be logged and a plan formulated which responds to any concerns and indicates:

  • The nature of any issues
  • How they were identified
  • How the business intends to tackle the issues and why
  • A proposed schedule – including benchmarks - for tackling the issues and conducting an evaluation
  • The procedures for dialogue to ensure that employees are kept in the loop

Implementation of the above will support organisations in generating a policy for the management of stress – not only employee but also employer. However, working conditions change.  Bosses must therefore monitor the policy and maintain dialogue with employees and/or their representatives to ensure that the processes and procedures continue to be effective and proportionate and support a healthy and happy working environment.