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Managing Stress and Supporting Mental Health at Work

ACAS has new guidance for employers on supporting employees struggling with stress and mental health issues in the workplace.

ACAS has produced three updated pieces of guidance for employers on managing work-related stress, supporting mental health at work, and making reasonable adjustments for mental health.

Stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them”. 33% of respondents to a recent YouGov survey of employees in Britain felt that their organisation was not effective at managing stress. While stress is not itself an illness or disability, it can impact on an individual’s physical and mental health, increasing the likelihood of heart disease, anxiety, and depression.

Stress may be brought on by work, particularly if employees are overly burdened with duties, have poor working conditions, or aren’t properly supported by managers and colleagues. However, stress at work can also be magnified by personal life events, such as a bereavement, relationship difficulties, menopause, poor health, or financial struggles. While some employers might take the view that what happens outside of work is none of their business, providing support to employees dealing with stress-inducing life events can help to create a more positive workplace culture, and improve employee retention and productivity.

Employers have obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to protect their employees from the risk of stress at work and to make suitable and sufficient assessments of risks to the health and safety of employees. Risk assessments should be carried out for teams or job roles on a regular basis, to identify the risks of stress and what steps can be taken to mitigate those risks. If an individual employee tells their manager that they are experiencing stress, then an individual risk assessment should be carried out to determine what can be done to reduce stress levels for that employee.

While employees should let their managers know if they are stressed, managers can also be proactive in looking out for signs of stress such as poor concentration, changes in mood, tiredness, and absences from social events. Having an informal chat at this early stage might help the employer to understand what problems the employee is facing and what support they require.

In the short-term, allowing the employee to take some time off may be a good way to relieve some of the stress they are feeling – whether that is to give the employer time to implement any changes to working practices, or to enable the employee to deal with issues in their personal life. It is important to retain a reasonable amount of contact with employees who are off work with stress, to prevent them from becoming overly isolated and to ease the transition to a return to work.

When it is time for the employee to come back to work, a return-to-work meeting should be held, giving the employer the chance to confirm that the employee is ready to return, to check whether they will need any ongoing support, and discuss any work updates while they have been away.

Employers should also be alert to any mental health issues, whether these are brought on by stress or not. A mental health condition will be a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 where it has a substantial adverse effect on an employee’s ability to do normal day-to-day activities and lasts, or is expected to last, at least 12 months.

Employers must not discriminate against disabled employees and must ensure that they make reasonable adjustments to take account of the disability. Where the disability is a mental health condition, these adjustments might include reviewing and changing the employee’s responsibilities, allowing them to work from home or in a quieter space, offering paid time off, or providing additional support by having regular check-ins or introducing a buddy system. The ACAS guidance goes into greater depth about the sorts of reasonable adjustments employers might want to consider, although it is important to remember that there is no “one size fits all” approach, and that what reasonable adjustments are appropriate will vary depending on the individual employee’s circumstances and the nature of their role.

However, while employers should be conscious of the risks of discriminating against employees with mental health conditions, a mental health condition does not give an employee carte blanche to misbehave at work – as in McQueen v General Optical Council. You can read more about that case here.

Although employers should be ready to make reasonable adjustments for workers dealing with stress or mental health issues, a more proactive approach can also be helpful. To help create a positive workplace environment and mitigate the risk of work-related stress, employers should have clear policies on mental health and stress – these might include the provision of access to employee assistance programmes and training on stress management techniques. We would also recommend ensuring that managers receive training on conflict management, stress, and mental health conditions, to allow them to better support struggling employees. A generally employee-friendly workplace culture can also help to mitigate or relieve stress, by promoting a work-life balance and encouraging employees to take holiday and avoid overworking themselves.

If you would like advice regarding an employee dealing with stress or mental health issues, or you need help drafting employment policies, please get in touch at [email protected]