Here is a guide to recognising work related stress and what to do if the pressures of work cause you actual harm that your employer could have foreseen and prevented.
Well organised and fulfilling work helps to promote health and self-esteem as well as paying the bills. However, when employers don't dedicate enough resource or support and the expected performance levels of a job exceed any person's capacity to reasonably fulfil those expectations, stress and serious illness can result. Having any sort of job where you lack an ability to influence your own destiny also increases stress and your risk of heart attack, coronary heart disease and other stress-related physical and psychological illnesses or injuries. Bullying or harassment at work can also be stressful and can seriously affect your health and mental well-being.
Stress can affect anyone in any line of work
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing of course, but the stress of making a presentation or winning a piece of business is different to the kind of regular stress that can lead to medical complications and increased cardiac risk. These risks exist in any line of work, but one of the more unexpected findings of a report by University College London showed the risk of contracting a stress-induced illness was greater among manual and unskilled workers than in professionals like doctors or lawyers. No matter what you do, being under stress at work and not being able to change or influence your situation could increase your risk of developing debilitating diseases.
Signs of work-related stress
From the perspective of the employer, avoiding stress in the workforce is a good idea. People suffer when a workload gets too heavy and staff display classic symptoms of stress such as poor memory, fatigue, bad time management, odd behaviour and working too much or too little. Employers should be watching for these key symptoms and redirecting overworked employees into more manageable situations. The consequences of ignoring these signs can be significant for a business. Whatever the cause of stress in the workplace, incidences are rising and stress is now the single biggest reason given for long-term sickness absence from work. Employers and employees alike should be vigilant in recognising the signs of stress and take steps to deal with the problem. Signs of stress can include:
- Poor concentration
- Poor memory
- Poor motivation
- Becoming withdrawn
- Loss of confidence and poor self-esteem
- Confusion or indecision
- Being tearful and sensitive
- Feelings of anger and resentment
- Negative thoughts
- Poor sleep pattern
- Nervous behaviour traits e.g. twitching
- Taking time off work or arriving late
- Increased in smoking, drinking or drug taking
- Loss of appetite or over eating
Helping yourself reduce stress levels
There are steps you may be able to take that can help to reduce the levels of stress at work. Not everyone will be able to do these things of course because the pace and the nature of their work is often genuinely outside their control, but the following ideas and self-disciplines will at least help those who can implement some of them to reduce the levels of stress they experience in the workplace.
- Set yourself achievable goals - these are the goals which you have the competence, ability and resources to achieve. If it is simply not possible to achieve, then it's not a goal.
- Delegate to others - recognise that you can only do so much yourself.
- Are tasks really that urgent? – a good test is to ask "Is this desirable or essential?" Leave the desirables and prioritise the essential tasks.
- Set realistic deadlines – don't commit to short deadlines if they are not realistic. You will please no one and just stress yourself if you miss a deadline.
- Learn to say 'No' - if you say yes to everything (or even most things) you will overload and are more likely to become stressed and no use to anyone.
- Take breaks to do something different – using relaxation or meditation techniques helps and exercise is good to reduce the level of stress-creating hormones in the bloodstream.
- Accept that others can be right - If you always 'have to be right' then you are putting yourself under pressure to be perfect and will be destined to fail. Perfect people are scary.
- We all make mistakes - blaming yourself or someone else for mistakes that are made simply makes stress levels rise and risks making more mistakes.
- Cut down on coffee, alcohol and smoking - they all contribute to feelings of stress.
Is it worth starting a personal injury claim for stress at work?
Many people do have reservations about making a compensation claim for stress at work because they are unwilling to admit a 'weakness' or think it's difficult to take legal action for something as nebulous and vague as 'stress at work'. Employers owe a range of general duties to take reasonable care to protect against any foreseeable risk of injury to their employees (e.g. to provide a safe system of work and to employ competent staff in sufficient numbers). Such duties are covered by the law of negligence and civil liability can also arise for breaches of statutory duties.
In stress at work claims, the relevant statutory regulations are found in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. These regulations require an employer to be proactive and to undertake suitable and sufficient risk assessments and to monitor the heath of their employees appropriately. It's therefore always worth while taking legal advice and considering a claim. There have been a number of cases that have gone to litigation in the civil courts and many more have been settled out of court without needing an admission of liability by the employer.
Claims arising from stress at work
Many people are reluctant to claim compensation for stress-induced illness caused by pressures of work because they don't want to be seen as being 'unreliable or unable to cope.' In addition, there's the pressure to keep your job by not 'rocking the boat' in the current economic environment. You may be given a task which, despite your best efforts and the issues raised with management, still does not receive the support you consider necessary to carry it out. As a consequence, you may be put under enormous pressure, working excessive hours, becoming stressed, unwell and eventually signed off work.
If that's the case, you may be able to make a claim for compensation provided you can show you have suffered a psychiatric or physical injury sustained during the course of your employment. By failing to take reasonable steps to prevent or reduce the risk of harm to your health your employer may have breached their duty of care and any illness you suffer could therefore be shown to be due to your employer's breach of that duty of care.
Claims arising from bullying and harassment at work
Bullying and harassment in the workplace are, sadly, not uncommon and can cause considerable distress to those affected by it. Your employer can be held liable if you have suffered injury (physical or psychological) because of workplace bullying or harassment and you may be able to claim compensation from them. However, bullying and harassment have precise and differing legal definitions which will determine whether you can make a successful compensation claim.
- Bullying: is legally defined as offensive, intimidating or insulting behaviour or an abuse or misuse of power or authority that is intended to undermine, humiliate, degrade or injure you.
- Harassment: refers to conduct, comments or actions that can equally humiliate, degrade or otherwise injure you based on what's called your 'protected characteristics' (race, colour, ethnic or national origin, religious belief, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, age or disability) as set out in the Equality Act 2010.
There is no specific 'anti-bullying' law in the UK, but you can make a claim if you can show that you suffered a psychiatric or physical injury caused by perpetrators who knew (or ought to have known) that their actions would cause you injury and should also have known that, by exercising reasonable care, they could have taken steps to avoid your injury.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 can be cited in cases of harassment, which it defines as 'conduct which causes alarm or distress'. In order to make a claim for harassment in the course of your employment you must show that there were at least two instances of harassment by a perpetrator who knew (or ought to have known) that their actions amounted to harassment.
What to do next?
If you suffered an illness due to workplace stress then don't simply accept it as an inevitable part of the job. There is something you can do about it, either to prevent it happening in the first place or to win compensation after the event that may at least help to fund your rehabilitation and recovery. It's always best to get guidance from specialist lawyers in this complex area of law rather than attempt things on your own (taking legal action can be a very stressful experience in itself).
Call our client services team on 03700 868686 or contact us online to discuss your options. Lines are open Monday to Friday 8 am to 6 pm and Saturday 10 am to 4 pm.
This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2023