Last month saw the UK acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Week, which came at a particularly prominent time during the midst of a global pandemic.
Promoting good mental health in the workplace has increasingly been a key focus for many businesses and has been pushed right to the top of the agenda. Now, more than ever, employers should be aware of the heightened levels of stress and anxiety amongst employees caused by the Coronavirus outbreak and related adverse implications.
With some businesses gradually returning to their workplaces and others continuing to promote homeworking, employers should assess the risks associated with COVID-19 posed by both the return to work and of extended home working. The Government has published 8 different industry focused guides which give practical tips for ensuring a safe working environment e.g. keeping your distance, using face coverings, creating shields. However, a risk that requires just as much attention, is that of work-related stress. Risk assessments will help to identify both physical and mental risks posed by the workplace during the pandemic.
Work related stress
Employers have a duty of care to protect the mental health of their employees. Mind, the mental health charity, has found that work is the most stressful factor in people’s lives - more so than debt or financial problems - with one in three people saying that work life was either very or quite stressful. Mishandling a work-related stress issue can give rise to claims in respect of:
- breach of the implied term of trust and confidence
- constructive dismissal
- unfair dismissal
‘Workplace stress is one of the biggest causes of employee absence – and also one of the more difficult issues to manage. The Management Standards will help employers identify and manage stress at work by providing a framework to pinpoint particular causes of stress, as well as achievable solutions.’ CIPD
Risk assessments allow employers to identify the main risk factors, determine the underlying and key causes of the work-related stress and introduce precautions to prevent it. The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) Management Standards identify six key risk factors that can cause or contribute towards work-related stress if not properly managed:
- The demands of your job;
- Your control over your work;
- The support you receive from your managers and colleagues;
- Your relationships at work;
- Your role in the organisation;
- Change and how its managed.
The HSE advise having an effective Management Standards approach implemented within a business organisation. This means that employers must have a detailed understanding of the above risk factors, implement measures to control them and have a policy in place to deal with any problems that present themselves. For businesses with greater than five employees, the assessment must be in writing, and for those with over 50 employees, the assessment must be published.
Increased risk = increased stress
Employees that are shielding and that fall into the vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and individuals with long-term health conditions may feel stressed about the prospect of returning to work in the future.
From the outset, these vulnerable groups were identified as requiring increased protection during the pandemic to avoid contracting the disease, as there is a greater risk that they will become seriously ill if they contract the virus. Over the past few weeks, employers have been completing COVID-19 risk assessments, considering the increase of potential mental and physical risks of such individuals.
However, figures were only released last month noting that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people are also at a higher risk of death if the disease is contracted. The Office of National Statistics stated that black men are more than 4.2 times more likely to die from the virus than white men and black females are 4.3 times more likely to die from the virus than white females.
As new data and statistics emerge relating to the increased risks faced by BAME individuals, businesses should begin factoring in such risks faced by their BAME employees when conducting COVID-19 risk assessments. The figures released will also increase stress levels for BAME individuals, and employers should be mindful of this when conducting risk assessments and commencing a return to work.
In response to these new findings, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced on 1 June 2020 that BAME staff across the Greater London Authority will have access to risk assessments to support those disproportionately affected by the virus. I expect many businesses to follow in the footsteps of Khan over the coming weeks.
Employees struggle with work-related stress under ‘normal’ circumstances, therefore we anticipate that employers will be faced with a rise in stress levels of their workers during and following the pandemic, as individuals are now dealing with not only the day-to-day stresses of their job they were previously faced with, but also the stress of homeworking or of reintegrating back into the workplace and wearing face coverings, socially distancing from colleagues etc.
With the current environment being so unpredictable and claims inevitably being on the rise after COVID, I encourage employers who have not already done so, to conduct risk assessments to identify the likely causes of work-related stress posed by the businesses and the best measures to control such factors. This evidence will prove invaluable if you find yourself having to defend claims.
These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.