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April is Stress Awareness Month

Discover crucial insights from WorkNest experts on navigating employee absences due to work-related stress during Stress Awareness Month.

 

With 17.1 million working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2022/23, WorkNest experts explain how to manage an employee who is off for work-related stress and urges employers to prioritise mental health in the workplace

April is Stress Awareness Month and with stress, depression and anxiety accounting for almost half of all work-related ill-health cases (49%), it is clear that effective strategies for dealing with workplace stress are urgently needed.

 In line with the HSE’s statistics, it is calculated that around half of these cases are specific to employees suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. A particular area of concern for employers is how much contact to maintain with an employee who is off with work-related stress.

Keeping in touch  

Whilst there is no law to prevent an employer contacting an employee who is off work due to stress, employers are understandably apprehensive about exacerbating what can already be a sensitive situation. Furthermore, there is legislation which can be relevant when managing an employee who is absent because of stress, such as the Equality Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act.

For employers who find themselves in such potentially challenging scenarios, Lesley Rennie, Employment Solicitor at WorkNest, has the following advice to enable businesses to support their employees, whilst meeting their legal duties:

1.        Ensure policies and procedures on managing sick leave are up-to-date and are communicated to all employees

2.        Maintain a reasonable amount of regular contact with the absent employee to demonstrate concern and gather updates on their health status

3.        Strike the right balance of communication and review this regularly in partnership with the employee

4.        Request medical documentation from the employee to verify extended sickness absence and better understand their situation

5.        Conduct a return-to-work interview to discuss the reasons behind the absence and offer support if needed

6.        Consider workplace adjustments to facilitate a smooth transition back to work such as shorter hours or flexible working

Prevention is better than cure

With 17.1 million working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2022/23, employers are urged to emphasise wellbeing in the workplace to help prevent their employees from being signed off for stress in the first place.

Susan Doran, Health and Safety Consultant at WorkNest, says: “We really need a shift in mindset to focus on a broader sense of health in the workplace, not just occupational diseases and safety. We would encourage employers to apply the same urgency to mental health in the workplace as they do to accident reduction.

“Health and safety legislation has traditionally emphasised an employer’s obligations in regard to safety but we have seen a notable shift towards protecting overall health with the Health and Safety Executive spotlighting mental ill-health in its 10 year strategy. We may therefore see a clamp down on employers who neglect how their workplace environment is contributing to poor mental health.

“Clearly employers should be cognisant of their legal duty to assess the risk of work-related stress. It is also important however, that they recognise the wider business benefits of creating initiatives and processes centred around individual wellbeing such as increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and a lower staff turnover. Beyond complying with regulations, fostering a mental healthy workplace is not just a legal obligation but a moral imperative.”

Steps to better manage stress in the workplace

The key to dealing with stress is tackling the problem early, as this may reduce the impact on the employee. Susan advises employers to take the following actions to better manage stress in the workplace and ready themselves for the HSE’s renewed focus on mental health.

1.        Implement a policy
Implement a comprehensive stress management policy which fosters a collective commitment to identifying, addressing and managing stress in the organisation.

2.        Provide training
Provide training so that managers are able to identify signs of stress in the workplace and equip them with the tools to address stress at the earliest opportunity.

3.        Collect data
Collect data on stress-related sick-leave to better understand what factors may be contributing to stress.

4.        Empower managers with Talking Toolkits
Utilise the HSE’ Talking Toolkits designed to help line managers have simple, practical conversations with employees about stress. These are particularly useful for smaller organisations to gather the sort of data that larger organisations may obtain through surveys.

5.        Conduct risk assessments
In instances where an employee has communicated their struggle with stress, it’s imperative for the employer to conduct a risk assessment and promptly implement relevant control measures to provide support. There are various ways stress can be managed, but the HSE Management Standards document outlines 6 key stressors and gives examples of how these stressors can be addressed.

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