Work Related Stress: Duties of an Employer

Legislation puts a duty on each employer to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health of employees is not endangered in the course of their work. This includes stress. Employers must ensure that the demands placed on employees while at work are reasonable. This is not just confined to the job the person does, but involves the person’s entire role at work, from the moment the person enters the workplace to the moment he or she leaves.

Under health and safety law, all workplaces should have, a current operational Safety Statement which outlines the hazards and risks in that workplace and control measures put in place to eliminate or reduce them. All employers should consider any workplace hazard where there is a reasonable probability that it could cause work related stress.

The HSA have produced a comprehensive Guide for Employers on Work-Related Stress, which is summarised in key points below, and throughout this Guide, the emphasis is on personal and relationship issues as the main source of stress for individuals.

Defining Stress

Stress can be broadly defined as the negative reaction people have to aspects of their environment as they perceive it. Stress is therefore a response to a stimulus and involves a sense of an inability to cope.

Work Related Stress (WRS) is stress caused or made worse by work. It simply refers to when a person perceives the work environment in such a way that his or her reaction involves feelings of an inability to cope. It may be caused by perceived/real pressures/deadlines/threats/anxieties within the working environment.

Workplaces which have good communications, respectful relations and healthy systems of work can help people recognise and manage the type of stress which may have more than one cause; such workplaces tend to get the best results in achieving a healthy and productive workforce.

Causes and Triggers of WRS

There are differences in underlying causes and triggers of WRS for everyone, but they can be broadly split into hazardous work conditions and hazardous work demands.

Hazardous work conditions, such as:

  • poor communication, unclear role, responsibilities, objectives
  • career stagnation, uncertainty, job insecurity
  • low participation in decision making
  • social or physical isolation, poor relationships
  • conflicting demands of work and home

Hazardous work demands, such as:

  • problems with work facilities and equipment
  • lack of variety, meaningless work
  • work overload or underload
  • high level of time pressures
  • poorly managed shift working, long or unsocial hours.

The effects of stress differ from individual to individual, and may be mental, physical, behavioural or cognitive. Different personality styles, gender difference, age, context, family history, emotional state will all influence each person’s stress levels.

Prevention of WRS

All employers are legally required to assess the working environment for systems and practices which lead to health and safety hazards, including stress, and to put in place preventive measures. Research indicates that workplaces with employee participation are much more likely to see successful health and safety measures implemented, because they tend to have clear policies and practices which encourage:

  • Respect for the dignity of each employee
  • Regular feedback and recognition of performance
  • Clear goals for employees in line with organisational goals
  • Employee input into decision making and career progression
  • Consistent and fair management actions.

How to Approach WRS: Step by Step Guide

It is recommended that companies diagnose first, by carrying out some form of risk assessment or audit, and then proceed to tailor their intervention to meet the needs highlighted by that process. All of this should be in a written record format. Such steps could involve:

  • Identify the hazards (causes of stress): what are the aspects of your organisation that have the potential to cause stress?
  • Assess the risks: prioritise them according to severity and likelihood of negative outcome; then
  • Eliminate the risks: change the system so that the stressful aspect of work is eliminated; or
  • Contain the risks: limit the impact and/or reduce the number of causes of stress; or
  • Protect from the risks: reduce the degree of exposure to the factors that cause stress; and
  • Monitor the risks: continually review levels of stress in your organisation, through exit interviews, re-entry audits, absence data, etc.

WRS Checklist

Some of the factors below can occur in any workplace, without leading to WRS; but when some are evident, especially simultaneously, there is a higher and increasing risk that one or more employees will begin to feel stressed.

  • Role at work: is it clear and integrated, or do people often have conflicting roles?
  • Relationships at work: is there constant strain and disharmony, or even open aggressive behaviour between people at work?
  • The hierarchies and leadership at work: are effective and fair management practices in place, supported by positive leadership?
  • Control: do people have some control over some aspects of what they do each day, or are they totally controlled, as though they were machines?
  • Training: are people properly and adequately trained for the jobs they actually do?
  • Demands: do employees have much more work to do than they are capable of doing to the standard, or within the time, expected?

The HSA offers the Work Positive system, downloadable free from www.hsa.ie. This is a workplace wellbeing survey tool with preventive and remedial suggestions to tackle work related stress and associated issues. It can be completed on line for a small fee.

It is strongly advised that, given the rise in stress injuries over recent years, businesses should ideally purchase Employment Practices Liability Insurance to have wider protection. If you would like a quotation, please call us on 049-4332944, e-mail info@martininsurance.ie or complete our online enquiry form.

Disclaimer: The material contained is this article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute professional advice.

About the Author: James Martin has 16 years of experience as a general insurance broker. He is a member of the Chartered Insurance Institute and has completed a Diploma in Corporate Finance.