Stress in the City: what can employers do?

Background concept wordcloud illustration of work stressWhat factors are behind the high-pressure work culture and how can employers help to alleviate problems as they arise? Ruth Badrick, employment partner of leading employment lawyers BDBF discusses:Stress-related claims are on the rise in the City amid more stringent regulations, longer hours, fewer bodies and higher demands.Even when employees are not in the office, extended working hours are difficult to avoid as a result of seemingly endless technological developments. Smart phones, tablets, Skype and even social media allow employers to contact staff — and indeed track their whereabouts — at all times. This can mean constant pressure and little time to switch off or relax.

Britain is still dealing with the aftershocks of the economic crisis and no one feels as secure in their job as they once did. But this is never more evident than in the City. After all, it’s a place where, if you’re not prepared to step up, then the eager young blades in the queue behind you happily will.In this pressure-cooker environment, it has never been more important for employers to be vigilant over the well-being of staff. Employers have a duty of care that requires them to take reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees, and that duty includes the need to protect an employee from psychiatric injury.

Who's at risk?High-profile casualties of workplace stress have become a routine staple of the business news section in recent years. Chief executives and FTSE 500s are not immune – senior employees who place huge demands on themselves in addition to the demands of their employers are often more at risk ,in a classic example of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”.In November last year, Sir Hector Sants, head of the Financial Conduct Authority throughout the financial crisis, resigned from Barclays just a month after taking sick leave for stress. His resignation was understood to have been a cumulative result of working for five years under constant high pressure.Reports last year suggested that interns at investment banks were suffering “inhumane treatment” as they struggled to cope with punishing work hours.Then only a couple of weeks ago, a man in his 30s died after falling from the European headquarters of JP Morgan bank at Canary Wharf. The circumstances of his death are as yet unclear, but as bonuses were announced only one week before, many are wondering whether work-related pressures were a factor.

Workplace statistics

Unsurprisingly, the statistics on stress reflect the scale of the issue. The Health & Safety Executive’s Annual Statistics Report 2013 showed that 10.4 million working days were lost to work-related stress in 2011/2012. Even more worryingly, recent research into those statistics by Legal & General has shown that stress, depression and anxiety are at their highest in the financial services sector since 2004/05.

All of this results in a rapidly expanding City balloon that has the potential to go pop in the next few years, with damaging repercussions for all those involved.

However it is not all negative as some long-held attitudes begin to thaw into a more modern, progressive and empathetic shape. Certainly, that horribly hackneyed perception that “stress is only suffered by the weak” does appear to be fading — albeit gradually.

And with employees now more willing to discuss the taboo subject of stress, employers will be increasingly alerted to the impact that stress is having on the health of their workforce and, subsequently, more action will be expected, and demanded, of them.

Against such a backdrop, the stakes have arguably never been higher, as employers seek to protect themselves from litigation, but more importantly, avert damaging problems and even potential tragedy.

Supporting employees

So, what should companies be doing to support employees, and what steps can they take to provide for the mental wellbeing of their employees?

For starters, employers will considerably reduce their legal exposure if they, and their managers, are alive to the warning signs of psychiatric injury and take reasonable steps to prevent matters getting worse.

Such signs will vary from job to job and industry to industry, but will often include individuals being unable to meet deadlines; exhibiting declining performance; making uncharacteristic mistakes; working unusual hours; displaying a lack of motivation or withdrawing from the team; avoidance of supervision, unexplained or recurring absence; unusual levels of emotion; and exhibiting uncharacteristic sensitivity to difficult situations.

Aside from waiting for warning signs to come to the surface, employers should take proactive steps to nip these issues in the bud.

Training and Risk Assessments

Employers are well advised to introduce training for managers to help them to identify the warning signs, training aimed at helping staff to cope with stress, staff surveys to ascertain the scale of the issue, and risk assessments.

Companies should provide employees with access to an anonymous counselling service or employee assistance helpline so that employees know that they have somewhere to turn.

Also key is the introduction of stress and anti-bullying policies that are publicised to employees and followed by managers. Above all, communicating with employees who are suffering, rather than ignoring the issue, is crucial.

Spotting the signs and taking prompt action

Once the warning signs have been spotted, the next step is knowing what to do to stop the situation getting any worse. In particular, if an employee has been off work with stress, anxiety, depression or any form of psychiatric issue, the employer is without doubt “on notice” that they are vulnerable and more is expected of them. The employer must therefore consider the following steps:

Maintaining a dialogue with absent employees is key. There is a balance to be struck because the employer must avoid adding to the employee’s stresses, but doing nothing or allowing unreasonable delay in contact can be evidence of hostility, particularly if the employee has asked for contact or support.

Third party support

Employers should look to involve occupational health early; where there are issues of stress, depression, anxiety etc, employers should always arrange for an occupational health assessment, unless they are already getting all the information they need from the employee’s medical practitioners.

Likewise, employers should always consider whether the employee might be eligible for Permanent Health Insurance. Send the employee the policy and make sure the insurer is notified in accordance with the terms of the policy before supporting the employee in making an application.

Ideally, the employee will return to work, in which case a meaningful interview should be conducted at this point, followed by regular check-in meetings and additional support.

Flexible working options might also be considered, along with reduced working hours and/or a phased return, as well as re-distribution of workload. Allocation of an individual who will act as a mentor or buddy to the employee might be helpful, and if resources allow, employers should provide support through employee assistance or counselling programme.

Cultural change

Closer supervision is paramount if issues are to be tackled quickly and effectively as they arise. As is often the case in an employment context, meaningful appraisals — where there is a proper discussion with the employee which identifies whether there are any issues — are invaluable.

That said, I believe more wide-ranging cultural changes will be required in the coming years to counteract the negative repercussions of our 24/7 working culture. Certainly, defining a robust strategy for dealing with stress and putting safety nets in place now is the only way if the City is to avoid damaging itself further from within as the battle with stress intensifies in 2014.

This article appeared in The Times Law Section, online, on 13 February 2014. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/law/article4003869.ece

Ruth Badrick, employment partner at BDBF employment law can be contacted on ruthbadrick@bdbf.co.uk