Understanding the law - Managing work-related stress

Understanding the law

There are 2 main pieces of health and safety law which cover work-related stress:

  • the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – this puts a 'duty of care' on employers to protect their employees from the risk of stress at work
  • the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – this requires all employers to make a 'suitable and sufficient assessment' of the risks to the health and safety of their employees at work

This means that by law employers must:

  • identify any risks to their employees' health, for example by carrying out a risk assessment
  • take steps to prevent or reduce work-related stress 

Employers must also make sure they're following the law on working time rules (Working Time Regulations 1998). This is because working long hours without regular breaks can be a cause of work-related stress.

Carrying out risk assessments

By law, employers must carry out a risk assessment to protect their employees from stress at work.

They should work with their employees to:

  • identify the risks of stress
  • decide how to remove or reduce the risks
  • agree what steps to take
  • make any changes to avoid or reduce risks
  • regularly review the plan

Managers should carry out risk assessments for the whole team or by job type on a regular basis.

If an employee tells them they are experiencing work-related stress, they should do an individual risk assessment.

Using tools can help managers work with their employees to identify the risks of stress. For example, the Talking Toolkit from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

This can help them to understand:

  • what's causing work-related stress or any potential issues
  • what they can do to tackle the causes

When a risk assessment needs to be in writing

If an organisation employs 5 or more employees, they must do a written risk assessment.

If an organisation has 4 or less people, they do not have to do a written assessment. But putting it in writing means:

  • everyone knows what they've agreed to do to reduce the risks
  • the employer is taking their duty to consider stress risks seriously

Download a risk assessment template from the Health and Safety Executive

If an employee is unhappy with how a risk assessment was handled

If an employee is not happy with how a stress risk assessment was handled, they can raise this with their employer. It's usually best to raise the problem informally first by talking to their employer.

If that does not resolve the issue they can raise a grievance. This is where they make a formal complaint to their employer.

For any questions about raising a problem, contact the Acas helpline.

Protecting employees from discrimination

Stress on its own is not classed as a medical condition. But a person is protected from discrimination if it affects their physical or mental health disability.

By law (Equality Act 2010), someone is disabled if both of these apply:

  • they have a 'physical or mental impairment'
  • the impairment 'has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'

Substantial means 'more than minor or trivial' and long-term means 'has lasted or likely to last for 12 months or more'.

If an employee is disabled, their employer must:

Find out more about:

Pay and time off with stress

Where possible, an employer should help an employee who's experiencing stress to stay in work.

However, taking time off for work-related stress might give someone the space and time to recover. This is particularly the case if stress is making their physical or mental health worse.

If an employee needs time off work, they should follow their organisation's sickness policy, if they have one. They might be entitled to sick pay.

Find out more about sick pay entitlement

Disciplinary or grievance procedures

A disciplinary or grievance procedure can be very stressful. An employer should carefully balance the employee's wellbeing and the need not to delay a procedure unnecessarily.

An employer should always follow:

Employers should consider how they can provide support to avoid causing more stress. For example, allowing the person to be accompanied when there is no legal right to be.

The employer must make reasonable adjustments if the employee is disabled.

If an employee is not able to attend a meeting

If an employee does not feel able to attend a meeting due to work-related stress, the employer should consider rearranging.

In some cases, with the employee's agreement, it might be appropriate to get professional medical advice on how to carry out the procedure fairly.

If an employer believes they cannot delay the procedure or they want to proceed without the employee, they should contact the Acas helpline.

Contact the Acas helpline

If you have any questions about work-related stress and the law, contact the Acas helpline.

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