Today is Stress Awareness Day – and it’s time organisations took the subject more seriously, says Kevin Lau

The issue of stress has been brought into even sharper focus this year, as the government's independent review of mental health in employment, Thriving at Work, has just reported back, just days after Acas's release of new guidance on promoting positive mental health in the workplace.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as: ‘The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.’ While some degree of pressure and demand is to be expected in the workplace to ensure the efficient running and productivity of any business, there are factors that can lead to employees feeling excessive pressure – and if not properly managed, these can lead to increased sickness, anxiety, depression or other mental ill-health.

The impact on employment

The HSE provides some estimated figures based on a Labour Force Survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics in 2015-16:

  • 11.7 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety

  • This accounted for 37 per cent of all work-related ill-health cases

  • 500,000 workers self-reported as suffering from stress, anxiety and depression

  • An average of 24 working days were lost per case

The HSE's own modelling placed the annual cost of work-related stress, anxiety and depression at £5.2bn in 2014-15.

According to the report, in the public sector, those most affected by stress, anxiety or depression are workers in education, health and social care. Other reports suggest the private sector faces similar issues and that, since 2013, around 33 per cent of absences in financial services and 24 per cent in retail were down to mental ill-health. Around 15 per cent of employees at work in England have symptoms of mental ill-health, says the report.

What can employers do?

Employers have a legal responsibility towards their employees' health, safety and welfare at work, including mental health. Quite separately from any legal obligations (including carrying out a stress risk assessment), employers should want to create a positive working environment, because employees who manage stress effectively are less likely to take sick leave, while managing stress at an early stage reduces the risk that it will lead to anxiety and depression.

The HSE has identified six main workplace stress factors: demands of the role, control over the way work is carried out, information and support, relationships at work, understanding the role and responsibility, and organisational change.

Employers should consider:

  • Having regular ‘catch ups’ with employees to allow them the opportunity to raise any problems at an early stage, so they can be addressed before they become a source of stress.

  • Introducing a mentoring system whereby employees can discuss any concerns with a more experienced colleague.

  • Signposting employees to external sources of assistance, such as employee assistance programmes or counselling services.

  • Using wellbeing benefits including gym membership, private medical insurance and flexible working practices.

  • Referring to HSE guidance on risk assessment and management standards.

  • Consulting Acas guidance on stress and practical management tips.

  • Looking at the websites of respected mental health organisations such as Mind, which often also provide useful resources.

  • Using local and national campaigns to raise awareness, such as Stress Awareness Day.

  • Adopting a wider mental health plan as recommended by Thriving at Work, provide training and/or appoint an internal mental health first-aider.

Kevin Lau is a senior solicitor in the employment law team at Blake Morgan