Around three in every ten employees will experience stress, depression or some other form of mental health issue in any one year. Stress is cited as the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence among non-manual employees, with mental ill health such as clinical depression and anxiety the third biggest cause. The top three causes of work-related stress are workload, management style and relationships at work.
Employers are subject to a variety of legal obligations in respect of their employees’ health and wellbeing. These obligations arise from health and safety legislation, the breach of which is a criminal offence, and also from the law of negligence, contract and discrimination. Injury to an employee’s mental health is treated by the law in the same way as injury to physical health.
The HSE in the UK defines ‘workplace stress’ as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’. According to the HSE, stress is not an illness but a ‘state’; it is only if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged that mental and physical illness may develop.
Employers are not under a duty to eliminate all stress in the workplace, but once an employee has raised the issue of stress, an employer is under a duty to take steps to minimise the risk to the individual. Failure to do so could render the employer liable for a future personal injury claim and/or constructive unfair dismissal claim.
Employers are also under certain duties in respect of those individuals whose mental health (whether or not impacted by work) amounts to a disability under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010.