Work-related stress: How to strike a balance between prevention and paternalism

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

Work-related stress (WRS) was a big problem before the pandemic. And it will be a big problem for long after. But, right now, much like the now infamous ‘R’ rate, the issue is on an upward trajectory. This is evidenced by an increase in Employment Tribunal and Personal Injury claims related to WRS, according to Vanessa Latham, Employment Partner at BLM Law, speaking at a recent webinar in partnership with Generali UK. Such claims come with high costs attached: both financially – anything from £1k to £100k or more – but also reputationally. And a time when business recovery rests on maximising everything you’ve got, while minimising costs, there seems an obvious need to get to grips with WRS.

But where should employers start? What are you obliged to do? Whose responsibility is it? And how can you be proactive without ending up with the problem of over-reporting? For example, carrying out an all of company survey to ascertain stress levels – the majority of those respondents, even if they say they are stressed, will probably be dealing with normal and “manageable” levels of stress. But because it’s now recorded, there’s an onus on you as the employer to do something about it.

The current problem

As Vanessa explained during the webinar, the outlook could become bleaker as furloughing ends and WRS claims related to redundancies kick in. Not only that, but the impact of burnout is yet to be seen.

Burnout, which results from chronic WRS that hasn’t been successfully managed, was only added to the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of diseases last year: “There’s usually a lag of 2 – 3 years before we would normally expect to see claims,” comments Vanessa.

Although not a medical condition as such, claimants might argue that the signs of burnout1 were obvious to the employer, thereby triggering an obligation on the employer to prevent injury occurring. And if reports of a new culture of “e-presenteeism” brought about by mass homeworking2 are anything to go by, those signs might be appearing for some already.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone,” says Vanessa. “It was recently reported that 20% of adults are suffering from some kind of depression. That’s doubled from 10% since before the pandemic.3

 “Also, 7 in 10 employees say the loneliness they experienced during lockdown was having a negative effect on wellbeing and productivity.4

 “As a manager it’s difficult to monitor all of this. Especially considering there’s a blurring between work and home. And managers simply aren’t experienced in managing people remotely.”

What are employers obliged to do?

Traditionally, if an employee tells you about an issue, or you’ve noticed a problem – generally indicated by a change in behaviour – there’s a responsibility on you to do something about it. This involves making reasonable adjustments or steps to help mitigate the issue and prevent damage occurring.

It’s important to ensure that the employee is involved in the decision-making process throughout. Never assume that you know what’s appropriate for them. For example, you might think that taking time off is the answer. They might feel that this will only make the problem worse.

It’s also vital to document everything. “If a stress-related issue is raised, listen to that employee’s views on the potential cause and solution. Say you’ll consider what to do then diarise a follow-up, document everything and go back to that individual with solid actions. Make tweaks as appropriate after reviews. And keep everything very factual. Don’t offer any personal opinions as that could be disclosable in any potential case later on,” comments Vanessa.

And what is now best practice?

While the traditional route described above still very much applies, employers are also now obliged to be much more proactive in their approach. For instance, nurturing a culture of openness and making sure people know how and where to access support.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. The key is to have a strategy that works for your people and your business. And to implement that strategy before a problem occurs.

It’s not a requirement, however, to have a stress policy in place. Vanessa says: “If you do have a stress policy, be careful to comply with everything in there, otherwise lawyers will use it as a stick to beat you with.”

Also bear in mind that you don’t need to do a generic ‘risk assessment’ for WRS. “You need to focus on the individual. Remember that anything from line manager one-to-ones and OH referrals to casual conversations in the kitchen area are all effectively risk assessments. It’s important to document something as a risk assessment where an issue is identified,” adds Vanessa.

Top tips: proactivity without the paternalism

  • Look for signs of difficulties: Particularly signs of change. This could be anything from high turnover, staff discontent and sickness levels to employee conflict.
  • Encourage a culture of openness: This ideally needs to come from the top down and include openness around mental health in all communications, including in regular line manager one-to-ones. Try asking open questions in one-to-ones such as “How’s your work going generally?” and “What’s going well and what isn’t going well?”
  • Communicate the support available: And help ensure individuals access that support at an earlier stage. If you have group income protection in place, consider making much better use of all the support included – from EAPs and second medical opinion services, to wellbeing calendars to help with communication and also wellbeing investment matching: funding support for new initiatives relevant to your organisation.
  • Ensure close liaison between line managers, HR and risk managers. And ensure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities. Vanessa adds: “We find the main reason for claims is where line managers just don’t do anything with the information they have.”
  • Consider referrals to Occupational Health (OH): OH will consider independent medical advice and suitable adjustments. Bear in mind that you don’t need to follow everything in an OH report, says Vanessa. “You have to consider what’s reasonable. And ensure where you don’t deem something to be reasonable, you can evidence why.”

 For access to the webinar recording – Tackling work-related stress: How far should HR go? And what does Risk need to know? – please go to and contact [email protected] for the password.


1 World Health Organisation, Burnout an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases, May 2019

2 HR Grapevine, Why employers need to be alert to burnout, May 2020

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3 Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and depression in adults, Great Britain: June 2020, published Aug 2020

4 Totaljobs, Lockdown loneliness & the collapse of social life at work, Aug 2020