Since the start of the pandemic, anxiety levels have understandably increased for most people, and although most organisations are encouraging employees to work from home, workplace stress remains a key issue for many.
In response to this, Public Health England and other mental health charities have extended their support services to help people manage their stress better, which businesses may wish to inform their workforce about.
From a business perspective, there are many good reasons why they should try and mitigate stress in the workplace, particularly because they have a duty of care towards workers that they must fulfil if they want to avoid potential workplace personal injury claims. Not only this, but workers managing their stress appropriately will be a lot more productive than those silently struggling with anxieties.
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.
Under these circumstances, it can be tempting to ignore the stress issue and concentrate on core activities, but the impact on the workforce can be so severe that businesses should consider some relatively simple steps.
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.
Businesses may implement 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 will also provide a level of comfort to the workforce who will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the crisis.
It also demonstrates the business is paying attention to the needs of its employees and is committed to their health and wellbeing.
For businesses that have reduced their workforce due to limited customers, it’s important that the lines of communication between managers and employees remain open throughout. NHS guidance suggests that connecting with people is a key factor to addressing stress, even if they are not physically in the workplace.
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.
Dedicating a member of the HR team to different sectors of the business can help by providing employees a direct point of contact should they want to discuss work-related stress.
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.
About the author: 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.
About the firm: 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.