Stress at work - a guide for employees

If you are suffering from stress at work, or you have suffered from stress at work, then you will want to learn more about your flexible working rights

Read our guide on your flexible working rights below

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What is stress at work?

Stress at work or work-related stress is when employees feel overwhelmed at work and cannot cope with the pressure and demands placed on them. The stress could be caused by a number of things including being overworked, long hours, a lack of support, a poor working environment or relationship with colleagues or supervisors, bullying or a change in job.

How do I know I am stressed?

Symptoms of stress can include but are not limited to the following:

  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating.
  • Muscular tension.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Sleeping difficulties such as insomnia.
  • Gastrointestinal upsets such as diarrhoea or constipation.
  • Dermatological disorders.
  • Anxiety and depression

What should I do if I am stressed at work?

If you are feeling stressed at work, you should first try and discuss this with your manager or talk to HR. It’s advisable though to put all correspondence down in writing (usually email) so that you have a paper trail if the matter were to escalate. A reasonable employer should show concern and try and resolve the problem with you, whether it is reviewing your workload, responsibilities or working hours and offering for example, training or flexible hours depending on what is causing the stress. They should also schedule regular meetings with you in order to monitor progress on your recovery.

If this informal approach does not elicit a response from your employer, then you should consider submitting a formal grievance which will inevitably be a more protracted process and usually involve your employer undertaking an investigation. Your employer should put in place measures that help you in the interim and review these regularly while your grievance is being dealt with.

If the stress is harming your mental and/or physical health, you may feel that you have to remove yourself from the situation that is causing stress and take sick leave. You will be paid either contractual sick pay while off (depending on your employment contract) or if not, you can obtain statutory sick pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks.

If you are suffering from stress at work your employer has the following duties to you:

  1. To identify significant and foreseeable risks to your health;
  2. To take reasonably practicable steps to prevent harm to your health that is foreseeable (or should be reasonably foreseeable) and caused by your work;
  3. To take into account any disability that you suffer from (whether mental or physical) that has a substantial and adverse long-term effect on your ability to work

Your employer should be proactive in trying to ascertain whether you are suffering from any impairments and, if so:

  1. Take reasonable steps to determine what in the workplace could be causing you to suffer ill health (or exacerbating an existing health conditions); and
  2. It should take reasonable steps to put in place adjustments that compensate

Your employer is, in general, entitled to expect that you will be able to you can cope with the normal reasonable pressures of your job or your workplace, unless you make them aware of any particular issues you are experiencing because of your role or the workplace. In terms of whether any harm that you are suffering from is “foreseeable”, this will depend on an examination of the following (among other things):

  • How demanding is the workload for your role?
  • What is causing the workload to be particularly demanding?
  • Does your job place greater demands on you than others who are doing a comparable position to yours?
  • Are you showing signs of stress or ill health? (for example, are you acting unusually or erratically in the workplace? or have you had a significant amount of time off work recently?)
  • Should it be evident to a reasonable observer that it may be the demands of your role that is causing you to suffer from ill health or stress?

If you have notified your employer that you are suffering from stress because of an issue in the workplace, or if your employer should reasonably know that the workplace is causing you stress, then the responsibility for dealing with the matter passes to your employer. Your employer should then endeavour to take reasonable steps to ensure that the cause of the stress is dealt with and ill health prevented – this would normally include:

  • Ensuring that you can take a period of sickness absence to recover
  • Referring you to occupational health for an assessment
  • Ensuring that such adjustments as are reasonable are made in the workplace to prevent the issues that you are suffering from

How can I expect my employer to react if I tell them I am stressed at work?

One of your employer’s main legal duties is to ensure that you are safe at work and to reduce any risks that you may face whether this is from machinery, fellow employees or your workload. That said, an employer can expect that you should tolerate the normal pressures of work unless they know of a particular condition that makes you more prone to stress.

Once you inform your employer that you feel stressed, as seen above, ideally, they should act as quickly as possible to manage this with you and if this is not done sufficiently expeditiously then you may raise a formal grievance or have to go off sick.

Can stress amount to a disability for the purposes of discrimination?

If your stress has arisen as a result of a problem at work, it is generally uncommon in and of itself to be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (Equality Act 2010). That said, it could have been triggered by an underlying condition such as anxiety or depression which can amount to a disability or it could become so serious that it affects you everyday life and so does then amount to a disability.

You must be able to establish the following in order for the stress condition to be defined as a disability:

  • You must suffer from a physical or mental impairment (or impairments);
  • The impairment(s) must have substantial (i.e. more than trivial) adverse effects on you;
  • The effect of the substantial impairments must be long-term; and
  • The long-term substantial effects must have an adverse effect on your normal day-to-day activities

“Long-term” means that the impairment must either last for more than 1 year or for your lifetime. This means that it can often be difficult to classify work-related stress as a disability, as the stress will generally be linked to a specific cause and once that cause stops (i.e. you leave your job or the cause of the stress at work is stopped) the stress will (generally) be stopped.

A condition (mental or physical) amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if it has a substantial adverse effect on your normal day to day activities and has lasted or is anticipated to last for 12 months or more. As well as making claims of disability discrimination, you can also raise a complaint of failure to make reasonable adjustments to your disability as well as harassment and/or victimisation if you suffer retribution from your employer because of raising a complaint.

Can I leave and claim constructive dismissal if my employer has not handled my stress well?

If your employer has been made aware of the stress that you are going through and has not taken reasonable steps to deal with it, such that you are unable to continue to work, then you may be able to claim that your employer has, through their lack of care, essentially destroyed the employment relationship that exists between you, entitling you to resign. You should seek legal advice before tendering your resignation (and leaving with or without notice) because constructive dismissal is notoriously hard to win as a claim in the employment tribunal if that is where your matter does end up. If your stress has led to your employer dismissing you due to capability, you may have a claim for unfair dismissal unless it can be shown that the reason was fair and the procedure used for letting you go, fairly carried out.

Can my employer contact me if I am signed off with stress?

An employer should only contact you if you are on sick leave due to stress if it is necessary to do so – for example if the matter is urgent or pressing – such as because an annual or periodic review or a redundancy situation has arisen. However, your employer should first check that you are capable of having such a discussion and if possible, they should contact you in writing as a first step.

Recent case law has indicated that employment tribunals will take the view that an employee may be entitled to resign, if the employer contacts the employee an unreasonable amount while off work such that the term of implied mutual trust and confidence between the two is broken and the employee resigns and can claim constructive dismissal.

Can I be dismissed because I cannot work due to stress?

Yes you can be if you have been signed off work for a long period of time and your employer considers that you are no longer able to do your job – capability can be a fair reason to dismiss as long as the process of dismissing is done fairly (for example, your employer has behaved reasonably in giving you time off, tried to arrange for perhaps a return to work on a part time or staggered basis and made any reasonable adjustments in the work place. Your employer is not required, legally, to keep your job open, indefinitely.

However, on the other hand, if your employer dismisses you because you have taken time off work (due to your stress condition) then you could potentially have a claim for disability discrimination.

Could I negotiate a way to leave if I do not want to return to work?

In some cases, the stress you suffered at work and the often traumatising experience that this has put you through, will mean that you just cannot contemplate returning to work. A negotiated exit package may be an outcome that your employer is willing to discuss with you, especially as they do not see a way forward either.

You will need to sign a settlement agreement on which you receive independent legal advice and under which you are paid a lump sum ex-gratia payment and often provided with a reference in return for agreeing not to bring an employment related claim against your employer in the employment tribunal or civil courts.

This is normally a very calculated and strategic situation, and it is recommended that you take legal advice from a lawyer before you start to enter into settlement agreement negotiations – this is particularly the case if the stress that you’ve been suffering from has been caused by your employer. Unless there has been a structured and calculated approach to negotiations, where persuasive legal arguments are being put forward as to why you should receive compensation, this may reduce the possibility of a successfully-negotiated exit.

What kind of claim could I have if I’m suffering from stress at work?

If you’re suffering from stress at work then, depending on the circumstances, you could have the following types of claims:

Examples of claims in the Employment Tribunal involving stress at work

  • Mr W Santos Ramos v Royal Mail Group Ltd: 2301076/2019 – in this case the Employment Tribunal held that the claimant, who was suffering from workplace stress which caused him ‘mind fog’ had been unfairly dismissed from his role after post went missing (Employment Tribunal decision)
  • Mrs G Yearwood v Department of Work and Pensions: 3307407/2018 – in this case the Employment Tribunal held that the claimant, who was suffering from work-related stress, had been subjected to disability discrimination and unfairly dismissal when her employment was terminated (Employment Tribunal decision)
  • Mrs E Worsley v Commissioners for HM Revenue and Customs: 2400096/2016 – in this case the Employment Tribunal held that the claimant, who suffered from depression caused by work-related stress, had been subjected to disability discrimination and unfairly dismissed when she was dismissed from her role because of the amount of sickness absence she had taken (Employment Tribunal decision)