Why work related stress could be the thing that unifies HR and Risk

Why work related stress could be the thing that unifies HR and Risk
Generali UK Employee Benefits

By Simon Thomas, Director – UK Employee Benefits, Generali

Both HR and Risk share a common goal: namely to mitigate Work-Related Stress (WRS). For HR, it’s a Duty of Care responsibility and, as part of this, an absence and retention issue. For Risk, it’s an employers’ liability (EL) claims issue. For the overall employer, it’s the potential damage to their bottom-line, not to mention reputation.

By working together, sharing intelligence and interventions – from preventative services, coping mechanisms and support to absence management and HR Mediation – HR and Risk stand a much better chance of tackling this ever-growing problem.

On top of this, considering the pecking order in many large organisations has now shifted so that Risk Leaders sit above Procurement in the buying chain of command, integrated working could be beneficial in more ways than one.

Extent of the WRS problem

Mental health issues are widespread around the world with around 3 in 10 employees reporting they have suffered from severe stress, anxiety or depression in the last two years, according to Willis Towers Watson’s 2017 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey.

In the UK alone, around 12.5 million working days were lost to WRS, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, accounting for 40% of all work-related ill-health and 49% of all working days lost, according to the most up-to-date statistics from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

It’s important to bear in mind though that “stress” is not a diagnosis in itself. As pointed out by the HSE “Stress is not an illness, but it can make you ill”.

Colin Hawes, Head of Claims – UK Employee Benefits, Generali, comments: “Although specific guidelines were given to medical practitioners to this effect, encouraging them not to sign people off with stress alone, the majority of Fit Notes we receive in these types of cases have ‘stress’ or ‘work-related stress’ cited as the primary cause of absence, although in some cases anxiety and depression are also included.”

Stress is often a normal reaction to external circumstances. How individuals cope with such stimuli though can vary hugely from one person to another.

The predominant cause of WRS is workload, in particular tight deadlines, too much work or too much pressure or responsibility. Interpersonal relationships at work and changes at work were also significant factors, according to General Practitioners network data, reported by the HSE.

WRS & Employer’s Liability Claims

As WRS becomes more prevalent, more employees are seeking compensation from their employers. At the same time though, successful EL claims relating to WRS are rare. But when they do succeed, they can be costly and even if a claim ultimately fails it will have cost a lot of time and money to defend.

Various Appeal Court rulings have made it clear that employers should not be expected to spot the hidden signs of stress if employees failed to tell them they were having problems. Once told, employers need to do everything they “reasonably” should to look after them.

As outlined by the CIPD in Work-related stress, what the law says, to succeed in an EL claim an employee must prove that: 

  • They have been diagnosed with a stress-related illness.

  • This illness was caused by their work.

  • The risk of this illness developing was foreseeable to their employer.

  • The employer breached its duty of care by failing to take reasonable precautions to manage the risk.

Stress management tools and techniques

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 – 2014. It found that “The presence of effective workplace stress management policies were important interventions that played a particularly significant role in avoiding legal action and reducing employees’ detrimental experiences”.

94% of the cases were found in favour of the employer as the defendant. Based on analysis of these cases, the study includes examples of managerial best practice to help provide guidance to other employers.

The following provides tips for approaching stress management: a framework that could be used in an integrated way across HR and Risk. 

  • Carry out a stress risk assessment. Employers are legally bound to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. The HSE provides a risk assessment template and example assessments to help employers in small businesses. This focuses on the six main areas of work design that can affect stress levels.

  • Eliminate the stigma. Ensure that support is accessible to employees to help them identify the signs of stress and learn how to build resilience and coping mechanisms. This might include access to relevant articles, webinars, assessments and helplines via a confidential Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Training for line managers by specialists such as Mental Health at Work is also beneficial in helping to reduce stigma around mental health so that employees feel better able to talk about any workplace problems they may be facing. At the same time, training can help equip line managers to recognise potential issues and signpost employees to relevant support.

  • Improve usage of existing support services. If employers already have a group income protection (IP) contract in place, for example, it will undoubtedly come with a whole host of free added value services - everything from EAPs to eldercare, tailored mental health pathways and other wellbeing services, along with support to manage absence and tailor interventions from an early stage. It’s worth finding out how your group IP provider can help with employee communications support to get the most out of all these services, plus potential funding for any much needed services that might fall out of the remit of added value benefits.

  • Make use of HR mediation. Whilst certain early interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can prove very effective in cases of medical based mental health problems, where non-medical psychological problems due to unresolved workplace problems are concerned it simply won’t be effective. Plus it’s often the case that employees don’t flag WRS as the cause of absence so problems can remain unresolved, leading to a long-term absence situation and a breakdown in communications.

It’s here that HR mediation can help and it’s included as part and parcel of some group IP policies because it’s obviously in the insurer’s interests to resolve such issues too. The aim is to reach a resolution that keeps everyone happy. This might involve the employee going back to work to their old job with some adjustments in place, but it might also involve striking a deal and helping the employee move elsewhere with help from career counselling.

Generali’s HR mediation partner Form Health provides such services, along with vocational rehabilitation and mental health first aid training.

Alex Pugh, Operations Manager at Form Health, says: "An increasing number of employers are recognising the need to prevent work related stress from arising and, when it does arise, to put in place appropriate measures to help staff. 

"There's space for a more integrated approach across HR and Risk considering the role that we play supports employers in their obligation to help staff, whilst also effectively removing the potential need to go down the litigation route."

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Comments (1)

  • Ann McCracken
    Ann McCracken
    Fri, 22 Jun 2018 9:00pm BST
    I find this article confusing regarding carrying out a Risk Assessment for stress in the workplace.
    The template provided allows an appropriate manager to write statements which may not represent how the staff feel.
    I have witnessed such a situation in 6 or more of companies who have approached me.
    My understanding is that an Organisational Risk Assessment is required to be carried out by all organisations of 5 or more people and each employee should be offered the opportunity to answer the 35 questions in a confidential manner on the 6 risk Factors [control, support (from manager/colleagues) demands, relationships [with manager and colleagues] role and how change is managed.
    This is a good system but despite being a legal requirement, it is not encouraged or enforced by the HSE!!!