Saturday 18 November, 2017

Managing work place stress

The BBC has recently reported that a survey in the UK showed that up to 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems have to leave their jobs each year. 

Prime Minister, Theresa May, who commissioned the report, said it showed "we need to take action". Mr Farmer, who co-authored the report and is chief executive of the UK mental health charity Mind, said: "Opportunities are missed to prevent poor mental health and ensure that employees who may be struggling get the support they need.

The potential risks of failing to identify and provide support for those suffering from anxiety and stress are serious; according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 229 workplace suicides occurred in the US in 2015 which represented around five percent of the total workplace fatalities. In the work context, men are overwhelmingly more likely to take their own lives than women and those between 45 and 54 years of age have the highest likelihood of committing suicide.  Employees in the public sector had a greater propensity for workplace suicide than those in the private, with the self-employed being most at risk.

In Trinidad and Tobago this year, the Guardian reported that the calls made to the suicide hotline Lifeline from people who were considered to be at a high risk for suicide rose from 7.3 percent in August 2016 to 73percentt in April 2017. Overall, the country ranks at number 41 out of 170 countries with respect to suicides per 100,00 people, more than the US and third in the region.

It must follow that the concerns regarding mental health in the workplace are as relevant in Trinidad and Tobago as they are anywhere else.  They are also as complex too.  The causes of workers’ poor mental health can be multi-factorial with issues relating to home life, finances and those arising from the work environment co-existing as well as amplifying the symptoms.  The stigma that attaches to issues surrounding mental health means that employees may be slow to admit that they are suffering and employers slow to pick up on the signs or address what may be perceived as personal issues.

Good employers are very aware that they have a moral duty to do all they can to ensure their employees are safe and well whilst they work but there is also a strong commercial interest in terms of mental wellbeing and ensuring that a business has a happy and productive work force: the recent UK report pointed out the cost to employers of work-related mental health problems: giving an estimate of £42bn per annum in lost revenue.  In addition, there are legal duties to consider, a failure to protect an employee from psychiatric injury due to stress or workplace bullying can create a legal liability and such actions in other jurisdictions can, due to the significant disabilities such injuries may cause, result in large awards of damages.

It is therefore incumbent upon employers to do their best to address the risks posed by stress, overwork, workplace bullying and harassment as well as supporting employees who, as a result of economic changes, face reduced working hours or worst still, find themselves retrenched. Companies need to know and understand both their workforce and the effects that the work they are required to do will have upon them.

 Managers should get to know their staff and, without prying, be alert to changes in behaviour.  Particular care needs to be taken at times when employees are more vulnerable, for example due to bereavement, illness or other family problems as well as when their workload is unusually large or where there are significant time pressures.  If employees are put under stress, as we all are at times, an employer must think of what adjustments can be made to allow those employees respite.  Most importantly there needs to be an understanding of mental health problems, an acknowledgement that they are an illness like any other and recognition that there are moral, commercial and legal duties to ensure employees are kept well.

 

Iain Daniels is a barrister at Ely Place Chambers in London and specialises in health and safety work.  He is speaking at the AmCham HSSE conference in the Hilton Regency on November 14 and 15 on topics including workplace stress.