The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a significant amount of uncertainty and concern in all aspects of our lives. With restrictions to our personal and professional lives continuing, many employees are having to adapt to a 'new normal', particularly for operational staff concerned about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Employers must account for this and ensure they put measures in place to mitigate the risks to their employees’ mental, as well as physical, health.

Employers have an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This obligation extends to ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that their employees do not suffer work-related stress.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define work-related stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them”.

Mental health has inevitably received an increased focus as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Concerns regarding their personal circumstances and their work-life/job security are likely to impact on employees’ mental health. Employers will also need to adapt to support the mental health needs of an increasingly agile and/or home-based workforce, unfortunately, it is typically harder to monitor this given the limited face-to-face interaction.

Employers should carry out a stress risk assessment in relation to their employees. Work-related stress will affect different employees in different ways. For example, experienced employees may have higher tolerance levels than junior employees. The assessment should therefore consider employees’ experience levels, workloads, work environments and personal circumstances, amongst other factors.

Employers should review their stress risk assessment whenever there is a significant change in working arrangements, policies or procedures; accounting for any wider societal changes or events that may affect their workforce. For example, due to the impact of the pandemic employees with caring responsibilities may currently be facing increased levels of work-related stress as they balance their workloads with their other responsibilities.

The HSE has introduced the Management Standards approach to assist employers in tackling work-related stress. The Management Standards approach identifies key areas of work that cause stress (such as work demands and organisational change) and encourages employees, employers and safety representatives to collaborate in order to drive improvements in these areas. Employers have no legal obligation to take this approach, however, doing so is a strong indicator that an employer is complying with its obligations.

Once their assessment is complete, organisations should implement suitable and sufficient measures to mitigate the risks identified. The measures implemented will likely vary for different categories of employees and different work activities. We would anticipate, however, that the measures implemented will include the following:

  • Monitoring of workloads to ensure employees are not put under excess pressure.
  • Encouraging employees to discuss concerns about their workload or workplace pressures without fear of reprisal and/or criticism regarding their role or attitude.
  • Regular supervisions and catch-ups ensuring employees can discuss any issues and line managers can monitor their personal and work circumstances.
  • Inclusion of considerations regarding mental health in human resources and health and safety policies and procedures.
  • Mental health support provisions available to employees both from the organisation and independent providers. Particular consideration should be given to the support needed by employees who complete difficult work activities, or who have upsetting or traumatic experiences at work. For example, care organisations may need to provide extra support to employees who provide end of life support to service users.

Mental health is a difficult subject and although recent media attention has helped to lessen the stigma, employees may feel scared or apprehensive to raise their issues or concerns. Employers should therefore also consider activities, guidance or support they can provide to employees and line managers to encourage open and honest discussions.

Employers are not expected to and likely cannot remove all work-related stress. They must, however, assess the risks of stress amongst their employees, putting in place sensible and sufficient measures to mitigate such risk and to develop an inclusive and supportive work environment.

For more information

For further information in relation to any of the above, please contact your relevant ACS contact or Lorna Kenyon.