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  • Overview

    The plight of junior doctors seeking better pay and working conditions has attracted lots of media attention in early 2016. In September 2015 The Guardian reported that the NHS faced the prospect of losing more than 80% of its senior hospital doctors who were considering early retirement due to work-related stress.  Such stress was cited as causing sleepless nights, marital break-ups and further, significant ill-health. Work-related stress can affect anyone, no matter what their seniority.

    The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress, depression or anxiety as ‘a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work’.  Of course, stress is not limited to those working in medicine, but is an issue throughout the UK workforce.  The HSE estimates that every year around 2.2 million people experience a health problem which they believe to have been caused by pressures in their working environment, with stress the most common cause of work-related illness.  The Labour Force Survey (LFS) estimates that between 2014 and 2015 there were about 440,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety and, of those, 234,000 were new cases.  During that period, a total of about 9.9 million working days were lost due to mental health related absences.

    The LFS’s findings suggest that stress is most prevalent in public service industries such as education, health social care, public administration and defence.  By occupation, jobs in teaching, healthcare, business, media and public service professionals show the highest levels of stress.  The main factors cited as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.

    Advice for employers

    For employers, mishandling a mental health problem could be a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence, as well as the contractual duty of care to maintain the health and safety of employees.  Either could trigger constructive dismissal claims, or worse claims from whistle-blowers who report such health and safety breaches, and lose their jobs as a result.  Personal injury claims based on negligence and/or breach of the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace and system of work can also be brought.

    The law is complicated but the starting point for employers should be to approach any issues with sensitivity and to seek professional guidance, whether from a lawyer or an occupational health doctor, or preferably both.

    Advice for employees

    Occasionally, our personal injury team is approached by employees who have suffered work-place stress. The most common cause of stress is workloads, management style and relationships at work which are often then experienced by employees as “bullying and harassment”..  Such claims are notoriously difficult to pursue and in the health service there is a policy of defending and contesting everything.
     
    Stress itself is not a medical condition but anxiety, depression and any related conditions if they have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an employee’s day to day activities may amount to a disability giving an employee protection under the Equality Act 2010. Working is a positive thing.  Not only do most of us need to work in order to make a living, but it can also give a sense of identity and achievement and an opportunity to develop friendships.  Positive stress can be good and a challenging work environment and stimulate the brain.

    However, where negative work pressures cause stress, depression or anxiety, it can have a terrible impact upon a person’s life.  It is therefor quite appropriate that we  have nominated  Mind as one of our chosen charities.  Mind is a mental health charity which is focused on the mental health wellbeing of our society.

    Mind, works tirelessly to support people who have been affected by mental health problems through helping them understand their condition and advising them on the treatment and support options available.  They aim to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people who experience mental health problems.

    Mind’s website provides lots of useful guidance on how to be mentally healthy at work.  Developing good relationships with colleagues, having a trusted confidant, being prepared to ask for help, saying no to additional demands if unable to meet them, working regular hours and taking the holidays and breaks an employee is entitled to may all assist. 

    To find your nearest Mind or to make the most out of the useful resources available to employers, employees or friends of those affected by mental health please visit http://www.mind.org.uk.

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