All employers have a duty of care owed to their employees and are responsible for their safety at work. Dealing with stress can be a significant factor in an employee’s safety and wellbeing at work. Stress is an everyday phenomenon and it is common for employees to be stressed at work. The Health & Safety Executive reports that in 2015/2016 around 480,000 people in the UK reported incidences of work related stress. Numerous things can impact an employee’s stress level at work including, among other things, the demands of the job, the hours involved, an employee’s performance, their relationships with their colleagues/managers and the level of support they receive. Given these common causes of stress, that begs the question, what are your rights as an employee when you are suffering from stress at work?
An employee’s working hours can have a significant role to play in work related stress. An employee has the right under the Working Time Directive not to be required to work more than 48 hours in one week, averaged over a 17-week reference period. The time an employee spends in training, traveling during work, paid or unpaid overtime (unless you have volunteered), working lunches and being on call at work all legally counts as part of the working day. However, many employees opt out of this right under the Working Time Directive and it does not apply if the employer has “obtained the worker’s agreement in writing”. An opted-out employee can also cancel an opt out if 7 days’ notice is given to their employer. Crucially, you have the right not to have your employment terminated if you refuse to opt out from the working time directive.
Disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010
An employee has a right not to be discriminated against during their employment. In some cases, the stress an employee faces at work could be so severe that it would come within the ambit of the definition of a disability under the Equality Act. If an employee’s stress condition qualified as a disability, then the employee would be afforded the protection under the Equality Act, including the right not to be discriminated against. The definition of “disability” is “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to carry out your employment”. An employer would also have the duty to consider any reasonable adjustments to the employee’s workplace or role in the event that their condition qualified as a disability.
Stress-related sickness absence
Suffering from a stress condition can also cause an employee to have to take time off work, or their worry about taking time off work may affect their level of stress at work.
Suffering from a stress-related condition may result in an employee incurring persistent short-term absences or a long-term absence. In either case, an employer may invoke absence management processes or a capability process to determine whether the employee will be able to return to work to perform their duties. An employer will have specific legal (and often also contractual) procedures when invoking any such formal process to address an employee’s sickness absence, and you should seek advice from a solicitor when you receive notification that a formal process is started.
If you require any advice regarding your own or an employee’s stress-related condition and the impact it has on employment, then contact one of our specialist employment solicitors today.