Published by: Nicola Smyrl

When does workplace stress become a psychiatric injury?

Research indicates that stress is the most common cause of long term and short term sickness absence.  Given the negative impact that employee stress can have on businesses, employers are well advised to consider how to identify and manage work related stress.

The HSE defines stress as the “adverse reaction to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.  Stress is a reaction rather than an illness although it may be a trigger for other health conditions.  Cause of stress in the workplace include excessive workload, mishandled disciplinary procedures, bullying and failings of management.

Employers have a duty of care towards staff. Where an employee can show that their employer has breached that duty of care, the breach has caused the employee an injury and  the injury was reasonably foreseeable the employee may be entitled to compensation to put the employee in the same position as they would have been had the injury not occurred.  Such claims can be costly.  It is increasingly common for employees to pursue personal injury claims based on work place stress.

Whilst the employee must establish that workplace stress has caused their injury, most stress claims turn on whether injury sustained by the employee was “reasonably foreseeable” by the employer.  Whilst employers are usually entitled to assume that an employee can cope with the normal pressures of their job, employers should be vigilant in looking out for the tell-tale signs of stress.  Signs may include inconsistent work performance, withdrawal from others, poor attendance and aggressive or defensive behaviours.

Businesses should consider:

  •  Risk assessments in relation to stress;
  •  Monitoring factors that suggest that stress is an issue e.g. attendance;
  •  Implementing a stress policy;
  • Using return to work interviews and performance appraisals to identify any stress related reasons for absence or poor performance;
  •  Training managers to recognise situations likely to cause stress, identify stressed employees and manage stress; and
  • Appropriate planning for formal processes such as disciplinary proceedings.