A common issue that arises for Irish employers is dealing with and managing employees who are suffering from alleged work related stress. This can arise in the context of performance management of employees, during redundancy or other internal processes, such as disciplinary processes, or due to workplace bullying or other interpersonal issues.
As we start a new year, it is an ideal opportunity for employers to review their current work practices and policies to ensure they are equipped to handle this common workplace issue should it arise in their business.
Legally, employers have a duty under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 ("the 2005 Act") to ensure employees have a safe place of work. Furthermore, stress in a business has negative consequences for both the employee suffering from the stress and the business itself, such as absence issues, increased staff turnover and poor performance.
Ultimately, employers who do not deal effectively with allegations of work related stress are potentially exposed to claims from employees who have suffered non-physical injuries or psychological illnesses arising from stress at work and there is an extensive range of court decisions which make it clear that if organisations do not tackle the management of work related stress, the employer runs the risk of significant civil liability. As outlined above, often these claims arise where there are allegations of bullying and in practice, we see huge numbers of employees undergoing performance management processes going absent on sick leave due to work related stress. Employers are then left in a difficult position in terms of tackling both the absence due to the alleged workplace stress, together with the employee's underlying performance issues.
Identifying Work Related Stress
It is recognised that within any business, it is normal to be under pressure from time to time, which is distinct from work related stress.
The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) define stress as broadly being "the negative reaction people have to aspects of their environment as they perceive it" and "involves a sense of an inability to cope". Work Related Stress (WRS) is defined as "stress caused or made worse by work". It may be caused by perceived/real pressures/deadlines/threats/anxieties within the working environment.
Role of the Employer in Addressing Work Related Stress
From a preventative perspective, employers have a legal responsibility...