Employers would be well advised to start doing stress audits now, says Steve Crabb

Work-related stress is a real problem for employers. For a start, it’s either the biggest or the second biggest cause of sickness absence for just about every workplace.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, British industry loses £370m a year through stress-related sick leave, while the total social cost may be as high as £3.75bn. More prosaically, there’s no cap on compensation awards for stress claims; the sky’s the limit if you are caught on the wrong end of a stress case.

As if that wasn’t enough to concentrate employers’ minds, last month the HSE upped the ante significantly by issuing its first ‘enforcement notice’ against an employer for failing to protect its staff from stress at work.

West Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust - one of the health service’s flagship operations - now has until December 15 to do an audit of the stress levels among its 1,100 staff and to put together a programme to combat it.

If it fails to satisfy the HSE, it faces court action and unlimited fines.

The precedent is clear: every employer, including those in the grocery sector, would be well advised to start doing stress audits now and to think about measures to reduce the ‘stressors’ that show up in the audit.

Employment law specialists Allen & Overy say this is ‘imperative’. “If bullying is a particular problem then an investigation needs to take place and appropriate disciplinary action taken. By taking immediate action to reduce the incidence of workplace stress, employers will be in a better position to defend stress-related personal injury claims.”

Furthermore, it’s tempting for companies to focus in on individual cases, rather than looking at the bigger picture, according to HR consultants Mercer.

“The whole process can be very subjective and emotional,” says Mercer’s Christine Owen. “Solutions are never easy, as problems are usually related to organisational culture, operational pressures and management.

“Added to the fact that employers are working with ever tighter budgets, it is easy to understand why stress remains in the ‘too difficult’ tray for many employers.”

In addition to conducting stress audits and putting in place action plans that address the wider cultural issues, employers would be well advised to remind their managers of the importance of keeping meticulous records.

If a stress claim is brought, you can expect to be challenged about the fine detail of meetings that could go back years and, if you haven’t got any evidence of who said what and when, your chances of a successful defence are going to be greatly reduced, to say the least.

This is particularly important for SMEs, which may not have the benefit of professional personnel support, but are no less likely to face stress problems - and claims.

At the same time as the HSE was making the headlines with its enforcement notice, the trade union movement signalled its intention to make stress a major campaigning issue. According to the TUC, workers exposed to stress for at least half their working lives are 25% more likely to die from a heart attack and are 50% more likely to suffer a fatal stroke. And they point to US research that suggests that blue-collar workers are more prone to stress than board-level executives.

Next month’s column will look at some of the problems with the ‘stress industry’ - not that that’s much comfort for employers.

This is one issue that isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

Guidance on how to carry out stress assessments is available on the HSE website (www.hse.gov.uk).

n Steve Crabb is editor of People Management.