Mitigating stress in the workplace

Tina Chander explains the relatively simple steps that organisations should consider to tackle the issue of stress and mitigate the severe impact that neglecting it can have on the workplace

Everyone has been impacted by the coronavirus crisis in one way or another, and for some, this has come in the form of increased anxiety levels, with workplace stress remaining a key issue for many, even for those currently working at home.

In response to this, Public Health England and other mental health charities have extended their support services to give employees access to support when they need it.

This is something that employers should inform their workforce about, as they have a duty of care towards employees that they must adhere to if they want to avoid any potential workplace injury claims. Not only this, but stressed workers are a lot less productive than those managing their anxiety levels through professional support.

Impact on mental health
Key triggers identified for work-related stress include workload pressures, workplace interpersonal relationships and changes at work. Given the current economic disruption, job insecurity and social distancing, these factors are likely to be amplified.

Whilst many businesses are struggling with loss of trade and furloughed staff, many others are under enormous pressure to rapidly increase the volume of their services, food production, supply chain logistics, etc., whilst coping with a large influx of new, untrained workers.

For those working in the education sector, a lot of classes will have moved online temporarily during the lockdown, and with schools and colleges now returning to normal, there a lot of health and safety considerations for staff and students to be aware of.

Of course, this comes with its own anxieties, as teachers and students face the increased risk of encountering Covid-19, especially when face-to-face interactions are a routine part of the day.

Risk assessment
One course of action for businesses to take is to conduct a ‘Stress Risk Assessment’, which will enable them to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress, whilst taking steps to minimise their impact.

Given the unprecedented scale of upheaval, any existing risk assessment may not be fit for purpose, so performing a new assessment will demonstrate a responsive and flexible attitude toward protecting the workforce.

Many employers may have completed risk assessments during the first lockdown, however conducting a new and updated risk assessment will ensure that employers are able to adapt to any new challenges that may have arisen.

A new risk assessment should seek to address potential problems such as whether the workforce has adequate space to work, whether they have any concerns arising out of lone-working or whether there are any potential new risks caused by working from home.

By identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them, a business can demonstrate at any later date, that it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care.

Comfortable working environment
For some employees, the return to normality may not be complete just yet, with remote working still happening in some instances. In such cases, it’s the responsibility of employers to prepare and provide safe systems of work, ensuring employees are operating in a safe working environment.

 Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, states that all employers must:
•    Provide safe systems of work and working equipment
•    Provide relevant information, instruction, supervision and training
•    Provide a safe working environment
•    Make arrangements for workers’ welfare at work
•    Prepare and revise risk assessment(s)

It’s important that employers remind workers to take regular breaks and stick to their normal working hours as much as possible, ensuring their productivity is not negatively impacted by being deprived of their full work equipment.

Although it’s not possible to undertake home workstation assessments for employees due to the Covid-19 Pandemic and the subsequent restrictions which have been imposed, it would be sensible for businesses to provide easy access to Display Screen Equipment (DSE) policies and advice, ensuring they mitigate the risks from excessive display screen work.

Where possible, employees should use a workstation checklist to help them create a comfortable and healthy working environment, that won’t cause any physical ailments. They should also be encouraged to stretch during breaks and change working positions if needed.

It's also important to consider employees with disabilities and any special arrangements made for them in the workplace, which businesses may wish to consider replicating in the home, whether it’s a special height adjustable desk, orthopaedic seating or any similar bespoke arrangements.   

Company policies
Businesses may consider implementing the following policies: Coronavirus Policy, Flexible Working Policy and a Homeworking Policy. In addition to this, businesses may wish to consider implementing a Stress at Work Policy, which can provide guidance to employees on how to handle stress at work, seek support from their employer and this can also include details of support services, if necessary.

Not only will this protect the business by implementing procedural changes and providing guidance for the workforce, but it will also provide a level of comfort to the workforce who will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the crisis.

This can relieve a lot of pressure from employees, as they feel reassured that their employer is making an effort to support them should they need it.
It also demonstrates the business is paying attention to the needs of its employees and is committed to their health and well-being.

Throughout the crisis, businesses should keep the lines of communication between the workforce, line managers and HR team open. This will allow employees to keep in contact with their colleagues and access support if they are experiencing high stress levels.

The workforce should be encouraged to discuss their stress and managers should respond with consistent messaging, whilst noting any shared occurrences which might point to a serious issue. Businesses are urged to keep in contact with the workforce by making regular telephone calls, conference calls and scheduling team meetings to ensure everyone can adjust to working from home.

If claims concerning Covid related stress emerge, the businesses in the strongest position will be those that can demonstrate they took the issue seriously, whilst pointing to a recorded risk assessment and structured engagement with employees throughout.

Tina Chander is a partner and head of the Employment team at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. She acts for employers of all sizes from small businesses to large national and international businesses, advising in connection with all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.

Wright Hassall is a top-ranked firm of solicitors based in Warwickshire, providing legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. The firm also advises on contentious probate, business immigration, debt recovery, employee incentives, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.

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