Acas have launched its new guidance to help employers identify and support employees who are stressed in the workplace. Its aim is to encourage employers to take steps to tackle the typical causes of work-related stress while making businesses more productive.

These aims are both helpful and admirable: in 2015/16 the Health and Safety Executive found that over 480,000 people in the UK reported that work-related stress was making them ill. If correct, this amounts to nearly 40% of all work-related illness. Acas itself reports that the UK economy lost more than 11 million working days last year due to stress related absence alone.

Acas identifies the six primary causes of work related stress to be: the demands of the job; amount of control over work; support from managers and colleagues; relationships at work; how a role fits within an organisation; and change and how it is implement. The Acas guidance also highlights five signs that managers should watch out for to help them spot stressed staff:

  • Changes in the person’s usual behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues.
  • Changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks.
  • Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed.
  • Changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking alcohol.
  • An increase in sickness absences and/or turning up late to work.

The guidance also explains what steps employers should take to reduce work-related stress. First, where a risk assessment identifies areas where the organisation is performing poorly, an employer should work with its staff to agree realistic and practical ways to tackle it. Secondly, an employer should consider developing an action plan in consultation with affected employees that includes:

  • setting out what the problem is;
  • how it was identified;
  • the proposed solution/s;
  • actions to be taken to achieve the solution/s;
  • dates by which each action should be achieved;
  • how staff will be kept informed on progress; and
  • a date to review the plan and see if it has achieved its aim.

More generally, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of supporting employees who are identified or report themselves as being stressed, Acas suggests:

  • Where it is possible to identify a work-related problem, a manager should consider what support or changes would rectify the situation.
  • Usually small, simple changes to working arrangements or responsibilities will help ease pressures affecting the team member.
  • If changes are agreed and made, a manager should also agree with the team member what their work colleagues will be told.
  • Even if the cause of stress may not be work-related, changes to the team member’s working arrangements may help reduce some of the pressure they are experiencing. For example, temporarily changing their working hours may reduce stress caused by caring responsibilities for an ill-relative.

While many of these suggestions will appear self-evident and obvious, with UK business losing more than 11 million working days last year due to stress related absence, it is clear that employers need to start thinking more about the underlying causes of work-place stress and how to deal with it effectively: this may well mean, given the poor record to date, going to back to basics and taking note of today’s guidance.

Employers should also note that they have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees; they have a duty to see that reasonable care is taken to provide them with a safe place of work and a safe system of working. Although following the new Acas guidance will not, of itself, defeat any claim for breach of health and safety and/or for personal injury, adherence to it is likely to reduce the risk of such claims being brought in the first place.