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Advice for managing stress in an individual


Continuing our series on stress at work for Mental Health Awareness Week, we are looking at what to do if an employee appears to be experiencing excessive stress.

Advice for managing stress in an individual.

A member of staff may raise an issue about stress or mental health directly or a colleague might mention that they are having difficulties. You may also observe signs that someone is not coping – change in an employee can be an indicator, so if your star employee is suddenly not performing or your usually chatty colleague is withdrawn – that may be a sign that they need help.

The main issue we see when defending claims that relate to stress at work, whether they are pursued in court or in the Employment Tribunal, is where the employer knows (or it is so obvious that they should have noticed) the employee’s mental health is being affected and little or nothing is done to help them.

Mental health can be an uncomfortable conversation for some and it can be difficult to know what to do and how to help. Managers may not want to make matters worse or worry about upsetting the person, but doing nothing is simply not an option. Once an employer is aware of a risk to an employee’s mental health, they are obliged to undertake a risk assessment and health surveillance.

There is no one right way of doing things. Each employee’s situation will be unique and they will have different challenges and needs, but there are three steps that should be applied. Firstly, engage with the employee and make a plan, then make sure the plan is actioned and finally, monitor and review.

When you engage with the individual, try to find out more about how they are feeling and why. Stress is not necessarily a precursor to mental illness. We all feel stressed at times and often a good moan to someone else can do wonders to improve how you feel. However, it is important to find out whether the person wants any follow-up. Don’t assume they are simply having a rant and move on.

If they do want a follow-up, find out more about their wellbeing, the cause of their worries and what changes they are seeking or might help them. Think about whether any other policies might engage, for example, if a person complains of being bullied, do you also need to consider a grievance, disciplinary or does the company have an anti-harassment policy?

The cause may be something outside of work, such as a bereavement, financial worries or a relationship breakdown. This doesn’t mean you can simply carry on as before. Knowledge that they are vulnerable or struggling with their mental health places the onus on the organisation to support them.

Discuss what changes can be made and what support can be offered. As we have mentioned already this week, individual experiences and responses differ, and so it is most important to find out about the employee and what help they need.

It is always best try to agree with the employee what will happen next. An employee who feels they have been involved in the process is more engaged, less likely to take sickness absence and less likely to bring a claim.

This doesn’t mean you have to do what they want. They might ask for something totally unworkable. In a claim, the court will look at whether you took reasonable steps to avoid injury occurring and (if the person is considered disabled) Employment Tribunals will consider whether reasonable adjustments were made. But what is reasonable? This will depend on the individual circumstances. Any organisation can, and should, take into account the resources available, size of the organisation, impact on others, what is realistically achievable, and what will actually be effective when deciding what to do. A good rule of thumb is how you would expect to be treated if you were in the position of the employee. You aren’t expected to perform miracles or be the perfect employer, but you are expected to be sympathetic and supportive.

Reasonable steps or adjustments might include a reduction to workload or a change to working hours. Where there is conflict between members of staff, can you try to mediate a resolution or find a way that they do not need to interact?

Engaging in this way is a form of risk assessment. You are considering the stressors on the employee and what can be done to avoid or mitigate these. It is important that this is in a written plan – not only so you can evidence it if the need arises, but also so that everyone is clear on what will happen next.

Stress risk assessments can take many forms, so the document does not need to be headed ‘Risk Assessment’ to comply with the legal requirement. In fact, the one-to-one meetings, appraisals and informal chats with employees mentioned in our article yesterday can all be forms of risk assessment if they consider the mental wellbeing of the individual.

Make sure the member of staff is signposted to other forms of support, such as employee assistance programmes or counselling services. Check whether they have been in contact with their GP and sought medical treatment.

It is also important to consider whether you need medical advice. Occupational health can play an important role in advising on the employee’s wellbeing and how that can be managed in the workplace, in addition to complying with the requirement to undertake health surveillance. You cannot force an unwilling person to attend an occupational health appointment, but you can explain the benefits of getting medical advice. As an alternative, if the employee consents you can seek advice from their GP or any practitioners treating them. The advantage of occupational health doctors is they are specialised in considering an employee’s health in the context of work and how they can be supported in the workplace.

Once you have medical advice, discuss this with the employee and consider any recommendations; look at whether your initial support plan needs to be adjusted. The medical professional can only make recommendations. If their suggestions are not feasible, then you are not obliged to impose them – but you should record the reasons, explain it to the member of staff and discuss alternatives. Review and, if appropriate, update the written plan with the employee.

If a member of staff is absent on sick leave, consider what should be put in place in advance of their return. Don’t wait for them to come back before deciding what to do. If they are signed off for a lengthy period of time, keep in touch. Try to agree how often and the method of doing this. Some employees will want more regular contact and others might find frequent reminders of work intrusive and unwelcome. When they are ready to talk about a possible return to work, invite them to agree to an occupational health referral and make a plan about what their return to work will look like.

It is important to make clear which changes are considered permanent and which are temporary. For example, it is common to have a phased return to work after a period of mental health-related absence. This is generally intended to be gradually increased over time so make sure the employee understands that. Misunderstanding can lead to conflict and a perception of a lack of support. Also be clear about the implications of any change, for example, if they are reducing their hours, will their pay also be reduced?

Once a plan is decided and communicated, make sure it is actioned. As mentioned in our article yesterday, be careful not to over-promise and underachieve.

Finally, and importantly, monitor and review. Make sure you follow up with the member of staff to see how they are getting on, discuss whether any changes have been effective and what should happen going forward. Review the plan and update it, if necessary. Also consider whether you need to have further advice from occupational health. It is sensible to diarise this when the plan is put in place as it can be easily overlooked.

Empowering staff to access support and ensuring management take positive action when they become aware of a problem can make a dramatic impact on stress-related ill health in the workplace.

Vanessa Latham

Vanessa Latham
Employment and Discrimination


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