Turning a blind eye to employees taking ‘working holidays’ is not an option

Friday 08 January 2016

The number of employees absent from work due to stress and mental health conditions is rising.

The most recent government figures show the number of days lost to stress, depression and anxiety increased by 24 per cent in the UK between 2009 and 2013, and in this year’s CIPD absence management survey, 40 per cent of participants noticed an increase in stress-related absence and mental health problems in the past year. These were cited as the most common causes of long-term absence, along with musculoskeletal injuries and acute medical conditions, and workload was quoted as the most common cause of stress.

In an age of connected technology 24/7, phone alerts, texts, emails, status updates, posts and tweets, during and outside working hours, employees increasingly feel unable to switch off. The concept of the ‘working holiday’ has entered the modern vernacular, due to the availability of remote working coupled with job insecurity fears.

The financial costs of stress-related absence are stark. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that 9.9 million days were lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2014/15. And the issue runs deeper than the direct financial cost. Adding to the practical difficulties caused by absenteeism, businesses find themselves facing personal injury and constructive unfair dismissal claims from employees who feel their stress and mental illness has been triggered by workplace pressure, or the often quoted ‘bullying and harassment’ by management.

Employers have a legal duty to ensure that employees are provided with a safe working environment. This means taking reasonable care to prevent personal injury, including mental or physical harm that may in some cases arise due to workplace stress. The Court of Appeal set guidelines on employer’s obligations in the leading case in this area, Sutherland v Hatton [2002]. Case law indicates that no one occupation is to be regarded as intrinsically more dangerous than another to an individual’s mental health. The courts will consider whether a stress-related injury was reasonably foreseeable in the employee’s case in question, and whether the employer took appropriate remedial steps to address the issue, in line with its duty of care, when it noticed the potential stress-related illness. Turning a blind eye is not, therefore, an option.

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