Legal: A stressed workforce is a less productive workforce

Tina Chander, partner and head of the employment law team at leading Midlands law firm Wright Hassall, on mitigating the stress of the return to the workplace...

As thoughts turn to a return to restaurants, cafés and hotels across the UK, it’s important for employers to consider not just the physical measures needed to ensure a Covid-secure environment, but what their employees will need to support their mental wellbeing. Many employees will be anxious about returning to the workplace and the potential risk of increased contact with the virus, especially those with underlying health conditions or vulnerable family members. Employers need to recognise that change can be stressful for employees and it may take time for them to adjust to new working patterns and arrangements introduced to mitigate the potential risks of full workplaces.

It will be sensible for employers to ensure employees are aware that they can discuss their anxiety and seek help with managing stress. This may include highlighting national helplines or training some their employees to become ‘mental health first-aiders’ and encouraging other colleagues to approach them with their concerns on a confidential basis. It might be appropriate to consider altering working patterns to reduce the number of employees in the building at any given time, or to enable employees to work flexibly and spend part of their week at home to assist them in managing anxiety about their return.

Key triggers identified for work-related stress include workload pressures, workplace interpersonal relationships and changes at work, all of which are likely to be amplified, given the current economic disruption, job insecurity and social distancing requirements. Managers with an eye on the performance of the business can tempted to ignore the stress issue and concentrate on core activities, but the impact on the workforce can be so severe that businesses should consider some relatively simple steps to mitigate the impact.

One of the simplest measures is to introduce a ‘stress risk assessment’, which will enable the business to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress, while demonstrating the steps taken to minimise their impact. Given the scale of upheaval within the hospitality sector, any existing risk assessment is not likely to be fit for purpose, so performing a newly devised assessment will show a responsive and flexible attitude toward protecting the mental wellbeing of the workforce.

Additional company policies

Businesses may consider implementing the following policies: coronavirus policy, flexible working policy and a homeworking policy, which will protect the business by introducing procedural changes and providing guidance for the workforce. Introducing such policies to the workforce will also provide a level of comfort to them, as they will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the ongoing crisis.

Should claims concerning Covid-related stress emerge, the businesses in the strongest position will be those that can demonstrate they took the issue seriously, while pointing to a recorded risk assessment and structured engagement with employees throughout. If required to defend its approach to returning to the workplace, identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them ensures a business can demonstrate it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care to its employees.

Businesses that fail to act may face a slew of workplace personal injury claims. This means that if you are in any doubt, you should seek professional legal advice at the earliest possible opportunity.

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