Stress at work – what are your legal responsibilities?

Charlie Damonsing
November 29, 2011 — 2,773 views  
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Following the report last month from the CIPD and Simplyhealth we all now know that back pain and cancer are no longer the main causes of long-term absence from work. The number one cause is now stress. As if that was not incentive enough for businesses to address the problem, there are legal responsibilities for directors, managers and employees in respect of dealing with stress.

Check through the points below, to make sure your business is doing everything it can and should be doing.

Please note that is a brief summary of the legal responsibilities, and specialist advice should be sought for specific situations.

The legal responsibilities arise from the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. These acts ensure the health safety and welfare at work of their employees, including minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees.

At board level

Directors are ultimately responsible for the health and safety of all their employees. In respect of stress they need to ensure that the following are in place:

  • Monitoring information that could suggest there is an issue concerning stress, such as high rates of absenteeism, staff turnover, poor performance, conflict between staff
  • Up-to-date and effective stress policy outlining the business' approach to stress and the procedures required to implement this
  • Carry out regular, effective risk assessments, with the findings followed-up and recommendations implemented and adequately funded
  • Plan for stress-related risks in times of organisational change

Human Resources and Health and Safety Managers

HR and Health and Safety Managers have an important role in ensuring that issues relating workplace stress are addressed on a regular basis.

HR and Health and Safety managers are responsible for:

  • Ensuring that policies and procedures are kept up-to-date
  • Arranging training required by the policy
  • Regularly conducting and reviewing risk assessments
  • Monitoring sickness absence for cases where stress may be a factor
  • Providing feedback to senior management concerns about stress in the workplace
  • Ensuring employees understand their obligations to inform managers about risks at work
  • Maintaining appropriate confidentiality at all times
  • Providing support and information to line managers
  • Being aware of the Disability Discrimination Act and any potential impact on specific cases of stress related illness

Line managers

Line managers have the most contact with staff on a day-to-day basis, they are therefore very well placed to identify potential cases of stress and address the issues as soon as possible.

This may include:

  • Identifying stress as a possible factor in sickness absence
  • Using formal and informal communication with staff to allow for discussions about any issues which could lead to stress
  • Monitoring and addressing potential sources of stress
  • Being aware of the Disability Discrimination Act and any potential impact on specific cases of stress related illness


Employees have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and of others who may be affected by their actions.

Employees should:

  • Inform their employer if they feel the pressure of the job is causing stress to them or anyone else
  • Suggest ways in which the work might be organised to alleviate the stress
  • Inform their employer if they are suffering from a medical condition that appears to be long-term and is affecting their ability to carry out day to day tasks, including memory and learning
  • Discuss any reasonable adjustments that could be made to assist them in performing their job.

There is also a growing body of case law which relates to stress in the workplace, including some examples of large payouts by businesses, so make sure you keep up to date.



Charlie Damonsing