Dealing with employee stress & depression

Written by
Changeboard Team

16 Feb 2011

16 Feb 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Stress - a top cause for concern

In October 2010, the TUC published a survey assessing health and safety trends in the workplace. This showed that stress was by far the most frequently identified workplace hazard in 2010, with 62% of union safety representatives identifying stress as a top five concern. 

Stress and stress-related illnesses such as depression are among the most challenging issues for employers and a failure to address them properly can leave you exposed to constructive dismissal, negligence and disability discrimination claims.

Stress & depression in the workplace

But what is stress?

It's been defined by the HSE as: 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.'

However, the TUC has described it as where the 'demands placed upon a person do not meet his needs or motivation.'

It's in the difference between the two (principally that the TUC does not require the demands to be excessive) that many problems arise - the traditional conflict between the expectations of the employer and the abilities of the employee. What is said to be stress by a union representative may be no more than firm management or an entirely containable workload for the employer.

Many factors can cause stress at work but common triggers are overwork, job insecurity, over-promotion, lack of training, bad working relationships, bullying/harassment, change and personal issues. Understanding what is causing an employee to be stressed is key to managing it.

Understanding the causes of stress

The best way of ascertaining the cause of stress is talking to the employee - they should know, after all. This can prove more difficult than one would expect - a common reaction of the employee claiming to be stressed is to flee the workplace and refuse to discuss the matter with the employer until cleared to do so by the doctor. Once you have been alerted to a potential issue, you should try to meet with the employee as soon as possible, discuss the problem and work with him to identify possible solutions. It may also be necessary to speak to line management and/or other colleagues to understand the situation more fully. It's essential that any agreed steps are then implemented promptly.    

If the stress is caused by genuine overwork, you should usually try to identify ways to reduce that workload, for example by reassigning duties on a temporary or permanent basis or providing additional resources. Any decision to re-assign part of an employee’s duties must be taken in consultation with the employee, as doing so unilaterally could give grounds for a constructive dismissal claim. If the problem is bad working relationships then steps should be taken to try to resolve those relationship issues, for example through workplace counseling or some form of mediation. If the stress is due to personal issues, it might be appropriate to consider allowing a short period of unpaid leave or a temporary period of flexible working.

In addition, if you offer confidential EAP helplines or counselling services you should encourage stressed employees to use them, though they will not be a defence by themselves.

If sceptical, ask for a medical opinion

Sometimes the cause of an employee’s 'stress' is not actually overwork or poor relationships in any objective sense, but the employee’s own inability to perform a perfectly normal job properly or efficiently, or to inter-act in a professional and civil manner with his colleagues. The allegation of stress may then be made in order to divert attention away from his own shortcomings into a grievance against his management, rather than a claim of actual mental injury. In such a situation the focus will be on addressing the actual problem i.e. the employee him/herself rather than those around them. This might take the form of your usual performance management process (additional training, setting objectives, more frequent review meetings, a mentoring programme, etc.) or disciplinary proceedings as appropriate.

However sceptical the employer, it's always advisable to consider seeking a medical assessment. This is particularly important where the employee has a stress-related illness, such as depression, as he or she may not be in a position to give an accurate picture of his state of health and the complaint can be genuine even if the trigger is objectively pretty trivial. The OHA should get as much relevant background information as possible and clear guidance as to what the employer requires him to address. Broadly speaking, this will involve an assessment as the employee’s current state of health and the causes of the problem, and any recommended steps to address the situation. Any recommendations that are reasonably practicable should be implemented. If a recommendation is not feasible, make a note of why.

How to make reasonable adjustments

In a bad case, an employee’s stress or depression may make him or her 'disabled' for the purposes of the Equality Act. You will then be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to any provision, criterion or practice you operate that places him at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people. A failure here will constitute disability discrimination.

Reasonable adjustments for an employee suffering from stress would be very similar to the steps already set out above and the approach that should be taken to identify those steps is in essence also the same, ie is there anything we can reasonably do to help? Advice from OH professionals as to possible adjustments will be particularly important as a Tribunal will scrutinize the extent to which you comply with any recommendations. Letters of instruction to OH should question specifically what, if any, reasonable adjustments can be made to the employee’s duties or working conditions, and proper attempts made to implement those which are practicable.

Immediately after the employee returns to work, you should meet with him/her to clarify your understanding of their current state of health (a quick referral to OH might be a sensible step), to talk about any temporary or permanent adjustments which are to be put in place to facilitate his or her return, and to discuss any other points which the employee wants to raise. Make decent notes so there is no confusion later as to what was agreed.

How to deal with absent employees

When faced with an absent employee claiming workplace stress, you need to manage the situation from the very start of the absence. The employer must maintain regular communication with the employee - an employee who is too unwell to work is not necessarily incapable of communicating with their employer, especially because it's only by the employer’s knowing enough of the problem to deal with it that the employee will be able to return.

If the employee does not feel comfortable coming to the workplace then consider offering to go to their house to discuss the situation instead. Alternatively, ask the employee to set out concerns in writing. In all cases, whether a complaint of stress or a full-blown grievance, the employee should be asked what steps he/she believes should be taken to address the situation, but the employer is not bound by replies.

Where there's a reasonable perception that the employee is not really ill but just hiding from reality, or where he/she is ill but not taking proper steps to help you address their issues, then you are entitled to exercise against them any discretion you have to discontinue sick pay - the restorative properties of not being paid are often remarkable.

Dismissing a stressed employee

You should of course be seen to make reasonable efforts to assist an employee who is off with stress, but there may still come a point when you have to consider dismissing him or her due to continued inability to perform the role. Any dismissal needs to be handled sensitively and carefully to avoid claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. 

Initially, you should obtain an up-to-date medical assessment of the employee’s state of health in order to understand the prognosis and what work he/she might be able to do in the short term. Consideration should be seen to be given to finding an alternative role before dismissing. If there's no such likelihood then it may be appropriate at that time to move to dismiss the employee.

In either case, no final decisions should be taken until the employee has been given the opportunity to discuss the proposed dismissal and to comment on the employer’s assessment of the state of health and ability to work. Whether or not the illness is claimed (or even proven) to be your fault, continued incapability can still be a fair reason for a dismissal.