Bowls of fresh fruit and mindfulness sessions are becoming increasingly common in the workplace as employers try to promote the wellbeing of their staff. A successful wellbeing strategy can improve employee attendance and retention, as well as productivity. It can also help shield you from compensation claims brought by employees for stress-related conditions which may be exacerbated by their work.
Richard Porter, head of Employment Law at Thompson Smith and Puxon sets out an employer’s legal obligations for employee wellbeing and suggests initiatives for you to adopt.
Stress at work
Employers are under an obligation to protect their employees from the risk of injury while at work, including the risk of injury to their mental health caused by the development of depression and anxiety as a result of work-related stress.
Where it can be shown that you have failed to take reasonable steps to comply with your obligation to protect, and as a result of this an employee has been injured, you may be liable to pay compensation.
You will not normally be liable for ordinary stress levels associated with a particular role as you are entitled to expect employees to withstand the usual pressures of a job. However, if you are aware that an employee may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress, or it is reasonable for you to foresee that an individual’s circumstances may pose a danger to their mental wellbeing, then you need to take care.
Protection from harassment
Bullying and harassment are obvious sources of stress and employees have been awarded significant compensation where they have been able to show that their employer failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment by colleagues.
Where harassment is related to a characteristic protected by discrimination laws, such as race, gender or sexual orientation, an affected employee may be able to bring a discrimination claim.
Factors outside of work
Events in an employee’s personal life, such as a family breakup or bereavement, may well increase their stress levels and even though these events are outside of your control you should not ignore them when evaluating the steps you need to take to ensure the employee remains safe and well. Instead, you should be sympathetic to what the employee is going through and take this into account when assessing their situation and likely vulnerability.
Responsibilities for disabled employees
Employers have additional responsibilities for employees who have a mental or physical health condition which is treated as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Although stress itself is not a disability it is possible for common stress-related conditions to be debilitating, including depression.
It does not matter who or what caused the condition: if you have a disabled employee whose disability affects their ability to do their job then it may be reasonable to expect an adjustment to their working conditions to cater for this, for example by allowing them to flex their hours or to work from home.
You need to look carefully at your workplace culture and the effect this may have on a disabled employee. For instance, in a case that came before the Employment Appeal Tribunal an employer was found to have breached the requirements of the Equality Act by making it obvious to a disabled employee that they were expected to work late like everyone else even though they did not actually tell the employee that they must do this.
Health and safety
Health and safety law is a further source of responsibilities when it comes to protecting employee wellbeing. You are required to provide your employees with safe working premises, and there is an obligation implied into all employment contracts to ensure a safe working environment, a safe system of work, access to safe equipment and the right to expect to work alongside safe and competent colleagues. Failing to comply with these obligations could justify an employee resigning and claiming constructive unfair dismissal.
Managers should be proactive and vigilant for signs that employees may be experiencing difficulties or stress. Steps aimed at improving employee wellbeing include:
- introducing and implementing an employee wellbeing strategy and policy;
- stress risk assessments and audits (the Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards approach offers helpful guidance);
- operating an employee assistance programme;
- effective implementation of anti-bullying and harassment policies;
- supporting an individual employee, for example through flexible working arrangements or reducing workload;
- improving levels of physical activity by introducing cycle to work schemes and lunchtime jogging clubs;
- encouraging healthy eating by ensuring canteens and vending machines sell healthy food; and
- training line managers to spot and effectively respond to employees experiencing stress and mental health difficulties.
We offer preventative help by assessing areas of particular risk in your organisation and determining the initiatives that will best reduce those risks. Where issues have already arisen, we offer practical advice and support to minimise your liabilities.