There are good reasons for a business to try and mitigate stress in the workplace, starting with their duty of care towards the workforce, particularly given the current situation. There is also the business case that a stressed workforce will inevitably be less productive at a time when the business needs the most from everyone.
As furlough comes to an end and employees begin to return to the workplace, employers need to take into consideration what measures they must put in place to ensure that it is safe for employees and clients/patients alike. Not only do clinic owners need to consider the physical surroundings of their employees, but they also need to consider employees’ mental wellbeing and the stresses that may come with returning to work.
Understandably, after an extended period of time away, employees may still be anxious about returning to the workplace, concerned about the health and safety implications of mixing with colleagues again. For those with underlying health conditions, or family members that have a condition, any such anxieties may be exacerbated. Employers should also be wary of the impact that the new working conditions and practices could have on employees. Change can be stressful, and it may take time for them to adjust to new working patterns and arrangements.
Employers should ensure that there are avenues available for employees to discuss any stress that they may be experiencing and seek assistance to help them manage those stresses if necessary. These measures might include pointing employees in the direction of helplines or investing in training some of their employees to become “mental health first aiders”, encouraging other colleagues to approach them with their concerns on a confidential basis.
It may also be appropriate in some circumstances 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 depending on their role and if this is feasible, allowing them to spend part of their week at home to assist them in managing their stresses and anxieties about returning to the workplace.
DON’T IGNORE IT
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.
With a focus on the return to work and trying to get a business back into a healthy position, it can be tempting 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 achieve two things; it will enable businesses to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress and will demonstrate the steps the business has taken to minimise their impact, or where those steps need to be taken.
Given the events of the past year, any existing risk assessment is not likely to be fit for purpose, so performing a newly devised assessment will demonstrate a responsive and flexible attitude towards protecting the mental wellbeing of the workforce. A new risk assessment should seek to address potential problems such as whether the workforce has adequate space to work, especially if clinics are expecting a lot of patients in the weeks after reopening.
It is by identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them, that a business can demonstrate, if required in the future, that it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care to its employees.
CONSIDER NEW POLICIES
After analysing your business’s unique circumstances, you may consider implementing the following policies: a coronavirus policy, flexible working policy and homeworking policy. These policies will not only protect the business by introducing procedural changes and providing guidance for the workforce, but will also provide a level of comfort to the workforce who will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the ongoing crisis.
GOOD COMMUNICATION IS CRITICAL
Businesses should ensure the lines of communication between the workforce, line managers, the HR team and health and safety managers (or whatever your own staff structure may be) are open and accessible. Connecting with people is a key factor in successfully addressing stress while working from home or on their return to the workplace. The workforce should be encouraged to discuss their stress and managers should respond with consistent messaging, while making note of any occurrences affecting more than one individual, which may point to a more serious issue that needs addressing.
If legal claims concerning covid-19-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. It is critical for businesses trying to combine home working and a return to the workplace to recognise that if they fail to act appropriately, they could face a slew of workplace personal injury claims, which will undoubtedly be a major distraction and likely to damage business confidence.
Tina Chander is a partner and head of the employment law team at Midlands law firm Wright Hassall. She deals with contentious and noncontentious employment law issues, acting for employers of all sizes from small businesses to large national and international businesses, advising on all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.