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Stress at Work

Work related stress refers to increased or excessive levels of stress due to an employee’s working conditions, such that it has caused, or is causing, them to become unwell. 

The following can affect stress levels at work: 

  1. Demands – for example your workload and working patterns.
  2. Control – the level to which you are able to control the way in which you do your work.
  3. Support – the amount of assistance and encouragement from your colleagues and managers. 
  4. Relationships – the nature of working relationships, whether with more senior colleagues, peers or direct reports.
  5. Role –where and how your role fits within the organisation. 
  6. Change – how your employer manages and communicates organisational change. 

What does the law say about work related stress?

Employers owe their employees a duty of care. This means that your employer is under a duty to: 

  1. Provide you with a reasonably safe system of work and place of work.
  2. Provide you with reasonably safe working conditions.
  3. Provide a working environment which is reasonably suitable for the performance of your work;
  4. Take all necessary steps to protect you from risks that are reasonably foreseeable, including risks of psychiatric injury. 
  5. Exercise reasonable care for your health and safety. 

Whilst your employer is not under a duty to ensure your working environment is stress free, it is under a duty to take steps to prevent you from experiencing stress to such a degree that it is “reasonably foreseeable” that the level of stress will cause you psychiatric injury.

Is stress at work a disability?

It depends on the nature of your stress, the impact that it has on you and the period of time it has lasted or is expected to last. 

To determine whether you have a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 an Employment Tribunal will ask these four questions: 

  1. Do you have a physical or mental impairment? 
  2. Does that impairment have an adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities? 
  3. Is that effect substantial (meaning more than minor or trivial)? 
  4. Is that effect long-term (meaning it had lasted, or is likely to last, for 12 months or for the rest of your life)?

If your stress amounts to a disability you will have various legal protections, including to have “reasonable adjustments” made to your working conditions to alleviate the impact of your disability and the right not to be discriminated against or harassed. You can read more about disability discrimination here

What qualifies as a hostile work environment?

The law does not define hostile work environment. However, there are two pieces of legislation which contain similar concepts, using the term “harassment”. 

The first is the Equality Act 2010. This states that it is unlawful for you to be subjected to unwanted conduct related to certain protected characteristics (age, sex, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation), be it yours or that of someone else, where that conduct has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you. 

The second is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA), which makes it unlawful for someone to pursue a “course of conduct” (i.e. occurring on two or more occasions) against you which amounts to harassment where that person knows, or ought to know, that their conduct amounts to harassment. In this context, harassment is behaviour that causes you distress or alarm. Under the PHA, the treatment does not need to be linked to any protected characteristic.

Each case is fact-specific, and the claims above have vastly different time limits. It is sensible to seek specialist legal advice early in order to determine whether the treatment you have experienced gives rise to a claim. This will enable you to take steps to protect your position. 

What are my rights if I am off work sick with stress?

You have the right to take time off to recover so that you are well enough to work and to return to a safe working environment. Your rights to pay when off sick will be set out in your contract of employment. 

If you have a disability, you have the right not to be subjected to less favourable treatment because of your disability or unfavourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of your disability (such as sickness absence). Further, your employer will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments so that you can make a successful return to work and to avoid any disadvantage in the workplace caused by your disability. 

Even if your stress does not amount to a disability, your employer owes you a duty of care. This involves considering how to reduce the stress you are experiencing such that you do not become unwell in the future. 

Depending on your circumstances, if your employer has caused you to become unwell, and you have suffered losses as a result, you may be able to bring a claim for personal injury (see below). 

Does my employer need to make adjustments for me if I am stressed?

Your employer should take steps to ensure your workplace does not cause you unhealthy levels of stress.

If you have a disability, either arising as a result of your stress or another condition, then your employer is under a duty to take reasonable steps to avoid the disadvantages you suffer in the workplace because of your disability. This could include reducing your workload, adjusting your working hours or transferring you to a less hostile environment. It may be prudent for your employer to refer you to Occupational Health for advice on how they should support you. If you have been absent for a lengthy period of time, your employer should consider a phased return to work when you are ready to return. Further information on the duty can be found here

Can I sue my employer for stress and anxiety?

You can sue your employer if your working conditions have caused you to suffer stress and anxiety. 

The most common claims are: 

  1. A civil claim in the County Court or High Court for personal injury if your employer has breached the duty of care it owes to you, that breach has caused you to suffer a personal injury and it was reasonably foreseeable that breaching that duty would cause you to suffer that injury. 
  2. A civil claim in the County Court or High Court under the PHA if you have experienced harassment in the workplace and this harassment has caused you to suffer loss and damage. 
  3. An Employment Tribunal claim for discrimination if you have suffered stress and anxiety as a result of being discriminated against. 
  4. An Employment Tribunal claim for constructive unfair dismissal if you have suffered stress and anxiety as a result of your working conditions or negative treatment you have suffered at work, such as bullying.

How do I bring a claim for workplace stress?

You need to decide what type of claim you are bringing as the process and time limits are different for civil claims and employment tribunal claims. 

The general rule is that a personal injury claim must be brought within three years of the day immediately following the date that you suffered the injury or the date that you became aware (or could reasonably be expected to have become aware) of the injury. The general rule for a PHA claim is that it must be brought within six years of the day immediately following the date of the last act of harassment. However, there are exceptions to these general rules on limitation and so it is important to take early advice to ensure the correct limitation date is identified. 

A discrimination claim must be brought within three months of the act or omission complained of (or within three months of the last act or omission if they are connected), subject to the rules on ACAS Early Conciliation. A constructive unfair dismissal claim must be brought within three months of the termination, subject to the rules on ACAS Early Conciliation.

There are various procedural steps that need to be taken before filing a claim. You should take specialist advice in good time before the deadline to ensure that you do not become out of time to bring your claim.

Bringing a claim is usually a last resort. There are other steps that you may wish to consider taking before (or instead of) starting proceedings, such as raising your concerns informally, submitting a grievance or negotiating a financial settlement. In certain cases, claiming permanent health insurance or taking ill-health early retirement may be appropriate.

What compensation can I recover if I suffer stress at work?

The work-related stress compensation you can recover depends on the type of claim you have. 

If your claim is for personal injury, you can usually expect to recover general damages (an award of pain, suffering and loss of amenity caused by the injury itself), special damages (an award to compensate you for the financial loss you have suffered including loss of earnings and expenses you have incurred as a result of your injury) and, if your injury is so severe that you can no longer do your type of work or work in your profession, damages for loss of congenial employment. There is no financial cap on the damages you can recover.

If your claim is under the PHA, you can claim general damages, special damages and damages for emotional distress. Again, there is no financial cap on the sum you can recover.

If your claim is for discrimination, you can claim damages for loss of earnings, expenses you have incurred in consequence of the discrimination (including the cost of medical treatment) and a payment for injury to feelings. Once again, there is no cap on damages you can recover. 

If your claim is for constructive unfair dismissal, you can claim damages for loss of earnings, including actual and future losses, expenses and loss of statutory and pension rights. Compensation is made up of a “basic” award (which is calculated in the same way as a statutory redundancy payment) and a “compensatory” award. The compensatory award is usually limited to the lower of 52 weeks’ pay or the “statutory cap” (this is currently £105,707 but the figure increases each year in April).

How can BDBF assist me if I am suffering with stress at work?

Our team of employment lawyers based in London are specialists in advising individuals in work-related stress claims. We act for senior employees and partners from sectors such as finance, insurance, law, healthcare and technology. We are experts in advising individuals on stress at work claims in the Employment Tribunal and High Court meaning, if litigation is appropriate in your case, we can advise you on how to prepare a claim for work-related stress. We also have extensive experience of helping clients suffering from work-related stress secure early and favourable settlements, assisting clients to negotiate reasonable adjustments, or who need advice on permanent health insurance where they are absent long-term. 

By instructing us, you can be confident that we have the knowledge, experience, and insight to protect your best interests. Our team of specialist lawyers have extensive experiencing of advising employees and partners with a variety of mental health conditions and understand the sensitivity and support required. We understand how stressful it can be to bring proceedings against your employer or former employer in any circumstances, but particularly if you are suffering from a mental health condition and we will work with you to achieve the best possible result. 

Recent examples of BDBF’s stress at work cases

  • Acting for an individual in a High Court personal injury claim against a bank, where our client developed an anxiety resulting from his excessive workload. This case was settled on confidential terms for a six-figure sum.
  • Acting for an individual in a High Court personal injury claim against a bank, where our client suffered from anxiety and depression resulting from bullying and harassment. This case was settled on confidential terms for a six-figure sum.
  • Advising an individual on their exit from a bank where she developed an anxiety disorder due to her excessive workload and the bank had ignored protected disclosures that she had made. This case was settled on confidential terms for a six-figure sum.
  • Advising an individual on their exit from a hedge fund where she had a pre-existing mental health condition which was exacerbated by an unreasonable performance improvement process. This case was settled on confidential terms.

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If you need employment law advice and wish to speak to one of our specialist employment lawyers, call us on +44(0)20 3828 0350 or fill out our online enquiry form.