Stress in the workplace. What are the issues and what should employers do to mitigate them?

With recent press coverage focusing on millennials in the workplace and their inability to cope with

the pressures of work, it’s more important than ever for employers to be aware of their legal obligations and how to manage this growing problem.

In this short blog we look at the steps that can be taken by employers to reduce the risk of stress becoming a workplace issue. We also highlight some of the legal issues and possible claims that can arise in this complex area of employment law.

What is stress?

Stress has been defined by the Health and Safety Executive as the “adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. Whilst stress is a reaction and not an illness in itself, it may result in or be a trigger for other illnesses. It can cause both mental and physical conditions including anxiety and depression and heart disease.

How can employers reduce the risk of stress-related claims?

Employers who do not take the necessary steps to manage the effects of stress on its workforce will not get the best out of them. Even more importantly, they run an increased risk of stress-related claims. They can reduce the risk of claims being made against them by taking the following steps:

  • Carrying out a stress audit – by asking staff to list their concerns in respect of stress.
  • Undertaking a return to work interview after sickness absence.
  • Using performance appraisals and employee surveys to identify underlying stress-related reasons for absence or poor performance.
  • Training managers to recognise situations likely to lead to stress and how they can help to identify the symptoms of stress and how to manage it.
  • Implementing a stress at work policy, which should make it clear that the employer takes such issues seriously.
  • Consulting employees and any employee representatives or if relevant trade unions on organisational changes.
  • Avoiding unreasonable requests being made of employees by fairly allocating workloads and ensuring the delegation of duties amongst team members.
  • Offering employee assistance programmes or free confidential counselling services.

What  are employers’ legal obligations?

 All employers are under a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees; they must provide a safe place of work, safe equipment and tools and a safe system of working. In addition, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes general obligations on employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also impose the following duties: Risk assessments, applying what is known as the “principles of prevention” for example avoiding risks; combating risks at source; developing a coherent overall prevention policy; and giving appropriate instructions to employees.

What legal claims against employers are possible?

Generally, health and safety legislation does not create individual rights of action for employees to sue employers for damages in the event of a breach by the employer. Employers are instead at risk of the Health and Safety Executive taking enforcement action against them which can result in criminal sanctions including fines and imprisonment (or both) in serious cases.

However, the scope of the common law duty of care under the law of negligence is influenced by an employer’s obligations under health and safety law. Failure of an employer to comply with the regulations can assist an employee to establish the degree of the employer’s duty to prevent an employee being made ill by stress at work and may result in liability for personal injury.

In addition to a personal injury claim, an employee may also bring employment tribunal claims against their employer for breach of contract, constructive dismissal, automatic unfair dismissal for health and safety dangers and disability discrimination. An employee suffering from work-related stress may also consider bringing a civil claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1999, which prohibits anyone from pursuing “a course of conduct which amounts to harassment”.

If the above claims are successful, they can result in substantial damages being awarded against an employer together with the risk of adverse publicity and high legal costs for defending itself at the employment tribunal or at Court.

In summary, it is clear that an employer should seek to mitigate the risks of stress-related claims arising in the first place by taking some of the above recommended steps and by ensuring that wherever possible action is taken to eradicate unnecessary pressures at work.

For further information or advice on handling employees with stress or any other HR/employment law issue, call Henry Doswell of Doswell Law Solicitors on 01233 722942 for a FREE, no obligation chat. Alternatively, email Henry at

Disclaimer: Whilst every reasonable effort is made to make the information and commentary contained in this blog accurate and up to date, Henry Doswell takes no responsibility for its accuracy and correctness, or for any consequences of relying on it. The information and commentary in this blog does not constitute legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. You are strongly advised to obtain specific, personal advice from a lawyer about your case or matter.