What is stress?
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) formal definition of work related stress is:
“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”
Stress is a state rather than an illness, and there’s certainly an argument that a bit of pressure can be a good thing. However there’s a difference between pressure and stress. Stress occurs when this pressure becomes excessive, and if stress becomes excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may follow.
What causes it?
Most common causes for stress-related absence are workload, management style, non-work factors, relationships at work and organisational change. So most stress-related absence is work-related.
Stress affects people in different ways and what one person finds stressful can be normal to another. Certain individual factors can have a bearing on whether someone suffers stress in a given situation, such as background and culture; personal circumstances; health status; ethnicity, gender, age or disability; and other demands being placed on them.
How much of a problem is it really?
Stress is the single biggest cause of sickness in the UK, affecting one in five employees and costing employers up to 105 million days lost a year according to the HSE. Two fifths of employers report that stress-related absence has increased.
Even for very small businesses, those figures mean stress is something you should be taking seriously and addressing, regardless of any less-than-sympathetic responses that stress-related absence may elicit.
What does it cost businesses?
The current median cost per employee per year of sickness absence is £600, and as stress is one of the leading single causes, a large portion of that average cost can be attributed directly to stress.
But as well as sickness absence cost, the risk of a legal claim for stress raises the question of compensation levels, which can easily run into the hundreds of thousands in serious cases where an employee has a breakdown, suffers psychiatric damage and in some cases doesn’t work again.
What are the legal risks?
Employers who fail to deal with stress are at risk of the following claims:
- Breach of implied terms in a contract
- Disability Discrimination
- Constructive Dismissal
- Statutory Duties under Health and Safety legislation
Most of those claims are not under the jurisdiction of an employment tribunal and as such are not subject to caps on compensation as some tribunal claims are.
Any other reasons for dealing with it?
As well as avoiding all the doom and gloom mentioned above, dealing with stress can have some real positive effects. People feel more motivated and committed to their work, and perform better. Relationships at work are better, as are retention rates and absence rates.
All employers need to recognise that stress is an issue that isn’t going to go away. Many managers have little tolerance for stress in their employees, and there is often a perception that stress is a sign of weakness, or not a ‘real’ reason for sickness absence. But the simple facts are that stress is costing you money and time and it makes business sense to address it.
If you are currently dealing with stress in your business and need some advice,
Thanks to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Absence Management Report 2012 and to the Health and Safety Executive for statistics and other information.