Is Work-Related Stress A ‘Foreseeable Risk To Health’?

Work-related stress (WRS) is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work” (HSE, 2007). In 2017/18, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health: On average, each case lost 25.8 working days in the year. (Labour Force Survey, 2018). Consequently, the reduction of WRS is now firmly on the Health and Safety Executive agenda, as indicated within their strategy, ‘Helping Britain Work Well’ (HSE, 2016), and their recent Stress Summit.

What causes WRS?

According to THOR-GP (the General Practitioners’ research network), the main work activities reported by patients as causing work-related stress (depression and anxiety) are: workload pressures, including tight deadlines (37%); interpersonal relationships, i.e., lack of managerial support or violence, threats or bullying (23%); and change (12%).

So what is the Law in relation to WRS?

Both statutory and common law consider WRS, with the latter fast evolving as individual cases set precedent. At their heart, lies the employer’s duty:
1. ‘To identify significant and foreseeable risks to employee health’, and
2. ‘To prevent harm to employee health that is foreseeable and caused by work’.

So how foreseeable a risk to health is work-related stress?

1. The opening statements suggest that WRS is prevalent and has real health effects. This is particularly the case within; education, human health and social work activities, public administration and defence, where WRS prevalence is above average (HSE, 2016). Of note, WRS is particularly prevalent within those classed as professionals within these sectors.

2. With an employer’s duty to identify risks and ‘to consult with employees on health and safety matters’, following the HSE’s current risk assessment guidelines for WRS helps identify concerns, causes and solutions.

3. Although employers can expect employees to withstand normal work pressures, employers should be vigilant of the potential causes and signs of WRS. These include one-off and ongoing abnormal pressures within an individual’s workplace, e.g., inadequate staffing, unclear expectations, or changes in an employee, e.g., their appearance, social interactions, behavioural patterns and performance.

In all, the statistics and evolving common law tells us that if an employer; accepts WRS as a health and safety issue, asks employees about WRS, and knows what to look for, WRS becomes more foreseeable. This not only enables employers to meet their duty to protect employees from WRS by taking reasonable care in managing the workplace, but also to gain the increasingly recognised business benefits of a healthy workforce.