Often, individuals may experience periods of stress due to work. Whilst some stress at work can be manageable, sometimes they can be more serious and these stresses can be caused by a variety of different factors, such as bullying and harassment, a lack of support from colleagues or management, being overworked, or simply due to a negative working environment.
It can be difficult to know what to do in these scenarios and to know what your rights are, so to help you, our team of employment solicitors have put together a guide on work related stress rights to explain everything you need to know.
What are the work-related stress employee rights in the UK?
There is a general duty for employers to ensure (as far as reasonably practicable) that the health, safety, and welfare at work for their employees is managed and safeguarded.
For example, to support employees with this, a risk assessment should be carried out by employers to ensure that they are aware of any risks which there may be in their workplace and that these risks are managed appropriately.
Additionally, many employers will now have a “stress at work” policy, mental health first aiders and phone lines that employees can use 24/7 for support.
Failure by an employer to comply with regulations may mean that an employee has claims against their employer for personal injury, breach of contract, unfair dismissal, discrimination or harassment.
Below, we have broken down some of the common areas of work-related stress rights, and answered some frequently asked questions to give you further insight.
Could stress at work be classed as a disability and protected under the Equality Act?
The HSE defines stress as the "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them" at work.
An employee who is suffering from work related stress may be classed as disabled under the Equality Act and then be able to claim disability discrimination and harassment if they are treated adversely by their employer due to their disability.
What are my rights if I’m off work with stress?
In the event that you are signed off sick with stress, you are fully entitled to take this time off work, providing you have evidence from a medical practitioner for the reason for absence and following the correct reporting procedures with your employer, such as you would with any other illness.
The length of time you can be signed off with stress varies from person to person, and can be significantly impacted by a variety of factors such as the nature of the job and the resources available to the employer, as well as any long-term sickness policies your employer has in place.
A sick note may indicate the time of absence, which could be anywhere from two weeks to a month or more.
Employees’ average time off work for depression and other illness in the UK lies at around 25.8 days per year.
Can work contact me when I’m off sick with stress in the UK?
You should expect your employer to maintain some form of contact with you during your time off, either by email or telephone – in many cases, this may be done to prevent feelings of isolation and to check in with your wellbeing, usually these will be termed “welfare meetings”.
However, there is a fine line between obtaining updates on an employee's wellbeing and harassing them to return to work or complete work-related tasks during their absence so an employer will need to be aware of this and conscious of how the employee is feeling.
Do you get full pay for work-related stress absences?
In most cases, if you have been signed off with work-related stress for longer than four consecutive days, you will be entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) as a minimum, however, depending on your employer, you may also be entitled to any contractual sick pay entitlement if this is in your contract of employment.
To qualify for SSP, you must have a contract of employment, have done some work under this contract, have been sick for 4 days or more, be earning an average of at least £123 per week, and you must notify your employer of the illness with proof within a specific timeframe under the normal terms of the contract.
Can an employer sack you for work-related stress?
If an employee has been signed off sick with stress for a considerable amount of time, regardless of if they have support from their GP, an employer may begin a capability procedure to see if there is any opportunity for the employee to return to work, or whether they can fairly dismiss the employee through ill-health capability under the premise that the employee is no longer capable of performing their duties due to long-term sickness.
Should this occur, the employer must follow a fair process before making punitive decisions, such as issuing warnings or dismissal. This process should involve thorough investigation regarding the underlying medical reasons for the absence and usually means that an employer will seek to obtain an occupational health report or GP report.
Unfair dismissal due to stress
If you are dismissed due to work-related stress without being given fair opportunities by your employer, this may be classed as unfair dismissal.
Generally an employee with two years’ qualifying service has the right to not be unfairly dismissed. In order for a dismissal be fair, the employer must show that the reason for the dismissal was one of the five potentially fair reasons for dismissal (conduct, capability or performance, redundancy, illegality or some other substantial reason) and the tribunal must find that, in all the circumstances the employer acted reasonably in treating the reason replied upon as a sufficient reason for the dismissal.
In addition, if the investigations reveal you are indeed suffering from work-related stress, especially in cases where this condition amounts to a disability, and your employer takes action against you, this may be classed as discriminatory.
Your employer should only look to dismiss as an absolute last resort and should instead look to how they can support you in the workplace, making reasonable adjustments to ensure you can perform your duties. This can include a phased return to work, amending duties, or introducing flexitime where the role allows.
If you feel you have been unfairly dismissed or discriminated against due to your work-related stress, you may wish to enlist the support of employment solicitors should you want to bring a claim against your employer.
Does being signed off with stress affect future references given by ex-employers?
If you have resigned from your employment due to stress at work and then try to seek new employment, whilst your new employer is not obliged legally to seek references from ex-employers, it is common that they do and sometimes they will make the job offer conditional on the reference being satisfactory.
An employer will need to tread carefully when providing a reference and many will just confirm start date, end date and job title to avoid any potential liability.
If an employer receives information about ill health after receiving a reference for a candidate or is requesting medical records or requiring an applicant to undergo a medical examination an employer must proceed cautiously before taking any action based on the information received about the applicant's state of health as this may give rise to discrimination claims being brought against them.
What can Smith Partnership’s employment solicitors do to help?
Our dedicated team of employment law solicitors can work with employees in a variety of different ways, such as supporting with claims against your employer, either for unfair dismissal due to work-relate stress, discrimination or for being the direct cause of your stress.
If you are an employer and you need guidance on how you can support employees with work related stress, you can refer to the guidance provided by ACAS, but as most cases will be fact specific, we would recommend obtaining advice from our employment law team to reduce any risk of litigation being brought against you.