Stress, Harassment & Disability - Health & Safety Issues?


04 November, 2007

Most employers are aware of their duties and responsibilities for health and safety in the workplace as far as the prevention of accidents and physical injury is concerned. How many employers though consider their duties fully in respect of mental injury or incapacity? The health and safety obligations are no less stringent.

Employees also have duties to take reasonable care for their own health and safety at work and how many of them consider their mental wellbeing as being relevant to health and safety?

According to research by the Health & Safety Executive, in 2004/5 12.8 million working days were lost due to stress in the workplace. It seems obvious that there are benefits to employers and employees alike by tackling stress in the workplace. For employees who are either suffering from stress or coping with workloads of stressed out colleagues it would mean avoiding injury or ill health. For employers it could increase productivity and in turn profit, reduce high levels of turnover in respect of staff and not least avoid claims to employment tribunals and the civil courts.

Stress can be triggered in many ways including pressures of workload, external pressure from home or family life or in some cases from poor treatment by employers or work colleagues. Bullying and harassment in the workplace can have a devastating effect on the victim and also on the morale of other colleagues. It can have far reaching consequences where the situation is severe or over a prolonged period. Often such treatment can be linked to various forms of discrimination such as sex, race, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or disability.

Stress in itself can be or become a disability if it causes symptoms which last or are likely to last a year or more and have a substantial adverse effect on their daily activities. Employers have additional duties to make reasonable adjustments to physical premises or working practices where it would have a beneficial effect for the disabled employee.

Carrying out risk assessments can help employers avoid claims against them. Employers need to take preventative action and should utilise disciplinary and grievance procedures to tackle bullying and harassment. Employers are responsible not only for the actions of themselves and their employees but also customers, suppliers and agents.

Employees cannot only pursue claims for discrimination or constructive dismissal where they have resigned because it all became too much, but have the right to pursue claims for stress related injury but can also pursue civil claims for harassment in the courts. Whilst the cost of an employment tribunal can be significant, in a civil claim the employee has the right to recover their legal costs in addition if their claim is successful.
What is plainly obvious is that an employer has to take action and has to be aware of the warning signs. Failing to act is no longer an option.

Ruth Rule-Mullen


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