Many of us encounter varying degrees of stress throughout the course of our working days however it can cause serious illnesses if an employee suffers from prolonged bouts of stress. Stress is unique to each individual and is not specific to any particular job. Stress means a negative reaction to pressure, accompanied by fear of not coping, loss of control and lack of support. It is a physical and emotional experience and can effect blood pressure, hormone activity, digestive disturbance and sleep patterns to name but a few negative effects of stress. It is important to note that stress is a “state” and the effects differ from person to person. Workplace stress occurs “when the demands of the job and the working environment on a person exceeds their capacity to meet them”. There are varying factors which cause work related stress such as poor communications, bullying and harassment, work overload, long or unsocial hours, etc.
It goes without saying that work related stress impacts both the employee and the organisation. For the employee it can impact them physically and mentally. This may result in them calling in sick, or taking a leave of absence from work. For the employer it leads to a loss of manpower, productivity, efficiency, and customer service to name but a few.
Employers have a duty of care to employees and this is reinforced in the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005. It would be advisable for employers to have a procedure in place to tackle the issue should they identify an employee experiencing such stress. This not only empowers the employer to take action to help the employee, but it also shows the employee experiencing stress and other co-workers that the company cares and that they are willing to help alleviate such stresses.
Policies and procedures that can be put in place to protect and support employees can include:
- Dignity at Work
- Grievance and Discipline Procedures
- Performance Management Programme
- Employment Assistance Programmes
Employers should ensure that demands that are placed on employees are reasonable. It is best practice that if employers become aware of staff members suffering from stress, they take action immediately to ascertain the cause and identify ways of removing the stressor. Often one of the first instances of when an employer becomes aware that an employee is suffering from stress is when they receive a sickness certificate from the employee. Once this occurs, the employer should write to the employee immediately expressing concern regarding the nature of the illness. The employer must take steps to establish the cause of the stress and remove it, if practicable, for the employee’s health and safety.
There are a number of actions which an employer can take in dealing with work-related stress. One such action is to refer an employee for an Occupational Health Assessment which will provide them with objective medical advice on the employee’s condition. Another action is to identify the causes of stress, be they working hours or workload and take steps to alleviate them. The employer can also offer the employee sick leave, annual leave or unpaid leave to take time to recover from the stress related illness. Other alternatives include a move to a different position or department which does not have the same stressors as their current role. Each individual case is unique to the individual circumstances and each employer must bear this in mind in evaluating the best course of action to tackle the issues.
If an employer fails to take action when made aware of an employee suffering from work related stress, they then can become liable for damages as they failed to adhere to their duty of care. If an employer is aware that an employee is susceptible to stress and fails to take necessary precautions to protect them, the employer is liable for any damages arising from their failure to act.
A happy workforce is a productive workforce and companies need to be more aware that each employee has a personal as well as a work life. Sometimes it may be the impact of either work or personal issues which causes stress, or a combination of both. This is why it is a good idea to have one to one appraisals with employees from time to time to get a better insight into the employees work life and should any issues arise, it can be taken from there.
Appraisals and employee meetings allow for a better rapport to be built with the employees and pave the way for more communicative relationships.