By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits
As the spotlight continues to shine on the destructive impact of stress in the workplace, it’s reasonable to assume that employers’ liability claims for work-related stress will become more prevalent. To deal with this pressing challenge it’s increasingly important for HR and Risk Managers to take an integrated approach to employee wellbeing.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) recently published statistics showing more than 600,000 UK workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018-2019, resulting in 12.8 million lost working days. Across the same period, these conditions accounted for 44% of all work-related ill-health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill-health.
In response to this growing problem, the HSE issued new criteria in September for investigating cases of work-related stress, saying it will investigate if it receives evidence that a “number of staff are experiencing work-related stress or stress-related ill health”. Although the regulator made it clear individual cases wouldn’t be investigated, this new guidance, combined with the findings of the 2017 UK Government-commissioned Stevenson-Farmer review into workplace mental health, shows how organisations are increasingly being held accountable for staff wellbeing.
An HR and Risk issue
From an HR perspective, there is growing evidence that a good employee wellbeing strategy which incorporates both physical and mental health interventions results in improved productivity, boosts the business bottom line and attracts and retains talent. While a lack of focus on employee wellbeing means the opposite results are more likely, it also increases the risk of staff seeking compensation for work-related stress through employers’ liability claims.
Vanessa Latham, a partner at specialist insurance risk and commercial law firm BLM, says “The subjective nature of the claims means they are unpredictable, but the usually unrecoverable costs of defending them means claimant firms rely on insurers making offers of settlement even if the case does not have strong merits.” This makes it particularly important for companies to take steps to support employees affected by stress.
Stress affects everyone differently, which often makes it difficult for companies to know how to manage and support employees when they’re having problems. The HSE provides a set of Management Standards that cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates. However, Ms Latham says courts have been slow to enforce the standards. “In my experience, stress claims usually involve some sort of personality conflict, even in cases of overwork,” she explains. “This is the hardest thing for HR to manage because often neither individual will be doing anything objectively wrong.”
One of the ways firms can protect employees from stress is by undertaking and acting on a stress risk assessment. However, because the causes of stress vary from one person to another – the HSE states workload as the main cause at 44% followed by lack of support at 14% - a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t appropriate. “Stress affects everyone differently and an individual’s tolerance to stress can change over time,” Ms Latham says. “This means risk assessments for stress are best when they’re personal to the individual and updated regularly.”
An integrated approach
A study published in the International Journal of Law and Management examined workplace stress in a random sample of 75 litigated cases heard in UK courts between 1992 to 2014. It found that effective workplace stress management policies played a particularly significant role in avoiding legal action and reducing employees’ detrimental experiences, with 94% of the cases found in favour of the employer as the defendant.
This is where Group Income Protection (GIP) can play a valuable part in providing a holistic and more effective approach to workplace stress management. Many GIP plans include mental health care services like employee assistance programmes and cognitive behavioural therapy to help prevent work-related stress issues and treat them when they arise. However, such services don’t always ‘speak to each other’, plus it can be difficult to know where to turn when you’re unsure on the exact nature of the problem. To meet this need, mental health navigator service from Best Doctors was recently launched in the UK. The service is designed to identify the correct diagnosis and provide an action plan for those struggling with a range of mental health conditions. As part of a comprehensive mental health care pathway from a group income protection provider it can also help improve integration of existing services.
Training for line managers by specialists such as Mental Health at Work also helps equip managers to recognise potential issues among employees and signpost them to relevant support. Ms Latham says line manager training is particularly crucial in legal cases. “Training line managers so they know what to do if stress is reported by employees is very important,” she says. “Many claims are successful because the manager doesn’t know what to do to support the employee once stress is reported.”
By taking a more integrated approach across HR and Risk, firms can minimise the organisational impact of work-related stress while reducing the risk of employers’ liability claims at the same time.