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Disability for work related stress

Published: 

Mon 3 September, 2018

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The difficult question of if work-related stress is a disability?

It’s not uncommon to hear an employee complain of feeling ‘stressed out’ at work.

It can be a throwaway, flippant comment at times uttered without a second thought about the real impact of stress.

Stress is a condition employers need to take seriously. Effectively supporting, helping and managing an employee suffering with stress as a direct result of work is vital.

Such is the effect of work-related stress that it has been debated over years whether or not it can actually be considered as a disability.

The Equality Act, 2010 at Section 6 does state that a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities (1).

Work related stress is caused by an individual’s adverse reaction to pressure from any particular work situation or occurrence.  The symptoms can have a significant and detrimental influence on an individual’s emotional, mental and physical well-being (2).

An employee may provide numerous fit notes citing work-related stress as the reason for an ongoing absence. What this does not reveal is the true extent of an adverse impact it may be having on that person’s day-to-day life, which will be crucial in deciding if the condition can be considered as a disability.

Determining if an employee with stress, anxiety or depression is disabled can be difficult. It is usually defined by the length of time an individual has been absent from work, or is likely to be absent from work.

For example, if a worker with no previous history of stress is off as a result of it for a few weeks, it is unlikely to be considered a disability. Where an employee has been off work for a considerable length of time or an ongoing period because of stress, it is far more likely that individual may be classed as disabled and therefore protected from disability discrimination under the Equality Act.

Employers should have an established and thorough approach to tackling stress in the workplace. In recent years the stigma associated with mental health has started to erode, but there can still be some difficulty in defining conditions such as stress and depression which make them extremely difficult for employers to spot and manage.

Being able to identify any potential warning signs and the ability to react quickly and thoughtfully to employees suffering with stress can help to alleviate the risks of them making an employment tribunal claim.

Ultimately it will be for the Employment Tribunal to decide if an employee meets the definition of having a disability. In order to do this it will consider the definition in the Equality Act and if there is a physical or mental impairment, which has an adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities and is it substantial and long-term?

All employers have a duty of care to their employees, which means that they should take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. They also have a moral and ethical duty not to cause, or fail to prevent, physical or psychological injury, and must fulfil their responsibilities with regard to personal injury and negligence claims (3).

That duty of care is significant when dealing with an employee suffering from work-related stress. The HSE has produced important and practical guidance and help in identifying and managing stress in the workplace and it has developed a model of good practice, called the “Management Standards” (4).

Stress at work can prove difficult and costly for employers. It hits businesses financially, can have a negative influence on staff relationships, lead to poor performance, see high staff turnover and result in more management time being spent on resolving the issues arising from stress.

Research from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that 526,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2016/17. The study also found that 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17 (5).

A recent survey found that almost half (48%) of the UK-based workers quizzed do little or nothing to relieve work-related stress as a result of feeling they have no free time (6).

References

1. Participation E. Equality Act 2010 [Internet]. [cited 2018 Aug 24]. Available from: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/6

2. How to deal with stress [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2017 [cited 2018 Aug 24]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-stress/

3.The Cube 123 Albion Street. An employer’s duty of care can manifest itself in many different ways. Find out more | Acas workplace snippets [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2018 Aug 24]. Available from: http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3751

4. What are the Management Standards? - Stress - HSE [Internet]. [cited 2018 Aug 24]. Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards/

5. Statistics - Work related stress, depression or anxiety [Internet]. [cited 2018 Aug 24]. Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/index.htm

6. Half of Workers Do Nothing to Relieve Work Stress [Internet]. [cited 2018 Aug 24]. Available from: https://businessnewswales.com/half-of-workers-do-nothing-to-relieve-work-stress/

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