How to manage occupational stress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Monday November 2, 2020

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened feelings of stress and anxiety for many people. Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures show that between 20 and 30 March at the start of lockdown 49.6% of people had high anxiety. While that has fallen over time, anxiety still remains higher than it was in 2019.

Of course, not all of this anxiety is occupational stress. However, “work affected by COVID-19” is cited by ONS as one of the six variables most associated with pandemic anxiety.

When you are running a business, this matters to you from several perspectives: moral, financial, and legal. Some predict that there may be a rise in legal occupational stress claims. So now is an excellent time to review your management processes for occupational stress.

What is occupational stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define workplace stress as: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.” They describe six aspects of work design which influence stress levels: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Coronavirus could impact any of these.

It’s important to remember that stress affects different people in different ways. Pressure which some people thrive on can be debilitating to others. There is a host of underlying human factors that feed into stress thresholds. Be mindful that many of these – like age, disability and gender – can be linked to protected characteristics in equality law.

Signs of stress

Changes in behaviour, both in an individual or a team, can be an indication of stress.

In an individual, this could manifest as becoming withdrawn; losing motivation, confidence or commitment; or mood swings and reacting more emotionally. Absences may increase or timekeeping deteriorate.

In a team, rising conflict, increasing staff turnover, performance drops, sickness absence, and staff complaints/grievances could all have stress as an underlying cause.

There is clearly a moral imperative not to let stress damage people who work for you. Moreover, there is a strong business case for guarding against it too: absence, conflict and staff turnover can all be a major drag on productivity.

Legal implications

It is a health and safety issue because you have an overriding duty, as far as reasonably practicable, to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees, as stipulated by the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974.

When employees have successfully claimed against employers for occupational stress, the compensation awarded has ranged from several thousand to many tens of thousands of pounds.

The main case of reference dates back to Hatton v Sutherland (2002), suggesting it may be time for a new test case to update the guidelines. In particular, for employers to spot, and attempt to resolve, a case of occupational stress early on.

What can you do to look after employees?

If you know or suspect an employee is suffering from stress, you should advise them to see their GP. If something at work is the cause, you should take action. UK legislation calls for reasonably practicable steps to be taken. But with the availability of more technology, and a greater understanding of mental health, this threshold is probably lower now than was once the case.

The basics are for a competent person – you may have someone inhouse or you can use specialists like The Health & Safety Dept – to conduct risk assessments.

These should be done at a business-wide level, for any roles which are inherently more prone to stress risk, and for any people who are deemed more vulnerable.

Now, because the pandemic has forced so much change on everybody, company wide use of personal stress risk assessments may be good practice depending on the circumstances of your business.

For all these stress risk assessments, the HSE’s six areas of work design cited above provide a helpful framework.

Personal stress risk assessments

As an example, let’s look at how someone now homeworking because of the pandemic could benefit from having their stress risk assessed. Our example will focus on homeworking, but there may be other unrelated pressures for you to consider too.

They could be vulnerable to occupational stress because it is simply far more difficult to do their job from home without direct access to people, space, or equipment – a matter of demand. A matter of  control could be that they no longer feel that they have the same input into decision making as they did previously.

You can go through each of the HSE’s six areas of work design and potentially identify stress risk. Note that it’s important, and a legal requirement, that each employee’s input is sought in this process.

Having identified the risks, record what you already do to manage them and what further actions you can take. Include who is responsible for implementing changes and by when actions should be completed. You need to demonstrate a methodical approach to managing the risk.

A health and safety professional may work alongside HR to deliver some of the solutions: communication processes, home working policies, management techniques and more. There may be powerful technological solutions too, where IT can play a role.

Wider benefits of personal stress risk assessments

By doing this, not only do you have the chance to help someone for whom you have a duty of care. You can also make tangible improvements to business performance through the positive impact it has on absence management and collaborative relationships.

Better still, you create the evidence of practicable steps you have taken to manage occupational stress risk, which will be helpful should a future claim be made against you. For bespoke help with this, please get in touch with our expert H&S team.



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