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82% of employers fear legal action on stress, finds survey


A new survey of 5,000 UK employers reveals that 82% of them feel vulnerable and at risk from being sued by their employees for causing workplace stress, discrimination, or for bullying. However only a third of the employers questioned by stress experts, Work Stress Management, knew about new legal guidance which could prevent them being sued.

Thirty-four per cent said they felt “very vulnerable” and 48% said they were “moderately vulnerable”. Only 18% said “it would never happen here” and that they felt “at no risk at all.”

The WSM survey, timed to coincide with “European Health & Safety Week” (14th – 19th October) that has chosen workplace stress as its main theme, also revealed that 64% of employers believe that the threat of legal action from employees for workplace stress is “a very important
issue” for their business, with a further 28% saying it was “a fairly important issue”.

However, only 29% of employers are aware of the new Court of Appeal guidance advising that employers who offer a confidential counselling and advice helpline are unlikely to be sued for causing workplace stress.

Less than a third of employers who are aware of the new Court of Appeal guidance, and just 9% of all employers, are actually benefiting from the new legal advice by providing a confidential counselling and
advice helpline for their staff.

The most popular method for employers to combat workplace stress is stress awareness training (34%), followed by employee satisfaction surveys / stress audits (21%).

Survey results

A survey on workplace stress was sent to 5,000 UK employers on 2nd October 2002. The sizes of employers contacted was weighted to reflect the average size of employers across the UK. Approximately 230 (4.6%) employers responded to the WSM survey. The questions asked and responses received are shown in full below:

1. How vulnerable or at risk do you feel from being sued by your employees for causing stress, discrimination, bullying etc?
Very vulnerable & at risk 34%
Moderately vulnerable & at risk 48%
It would never happen here 18%

2. How important a risk to your business do you consider workplace stress?
Very important 64%
Fairly Important 28%
Not Important 8%

3. Are you aware of the new Court of Appeal guidance advising that employers who offer a confidential counselling & advice helpline are unlikely to be sued for causing workplace stress?
29% Yes
71% No

4. Does your company offer any of the following solutions
to help combat workplace stress?
(% Yes)
Confidential counselling helpline 9%
Stress awareness training 34% Critical incident support 18% Employee satisfaction surveys 21% Health club membership 17%

Are you aware that you have legal responsibility for only stress caused at work – and not for stress caused by outside factors?
62% Yes
38% No

5 Responses

  1. Internal Schemes
    I am sure that the previous writer’s staff scheme works not just because there is an internal counsellor but also because the culture is now arranged around the policy of staff care. Council’s behaviour in this area provided the ground breaking first cases in stress litigation and most have worked very hard to mitigate that risk since.

    A number of public bodies run schemes like this and report varying degrees of success.

    For businesses however there are often not the funds available to employ a counsellor on the payroll.

    For some businesses outsourcing possibly via insurance (which also covers their immediate family members) can be a real option and often the only one.

    For those businesses who cannot afford to have a counsellor on the payroll alternatives have to be considered. Keeping within the law and accomodating ever increasing legislation demands is often a financial struggle for the smaller business. There is no comparison between a council’s budget and that of a SME.

    RM Edwards
    Lime One Ltd
    HR and Employment Law Consultants
    0870 240 4325

  2. Counselling at work.
    I work for a Local Authority which has had an internal counselling service for over ten years. It proves that internal counselling can work and handled sensitively can benefit both the employee and the organisation. We have expanded this into mediation and are developing a much wider ‘staff care’ agenda on the success of our counselling service.

  3. Stress
    The case law on this particular aspect is recent and was suggested by the trial judge in her disposal of three lead cases. It is widely interpreted as meaning counselling equals no case for any employee which is not correct.

    However the counselling service does assist strongly any litigation defence if it is part of a cohesive stress policy.

    I would be careful about counsellors employed by your business as apart from the suspicion elemnt there are also issues of a contractual nature as to quality of service and cost.

    The counselling through insurance option is low in price and worth thinking about if you recognise this is a problem with your staff.

    Best of luck

    R Edwards
    Lime One Ltd
    HR and Employment Law Consultants.
    0870 240 4325
    email [email protected]

  4. re: does it have to be external councelling
    Hi Jenny, not necessarily. However when I worked in my old company there was a reluctance to discuss such issues with someone who was internal. This was due to perception of credibilty and confidentiality issues. Also I think that if a stressed individual was seen by a member from the same company it will only serve to remind the person about the company and the stress will be more difficult to deal with. This is why I think it is better to see an external stress adviser as there are no links , ties or reminders at the advisers premises. Regards. Martin.

  5. Does it have to be external councelling.
    Does stress councelling have to be run by external councellers or can it be built into company grievance procedures whereby they bypass line management and contact the personnel department. Is it a service we will have to buy outside to ensure confidentiality?
    I see lots of coucellors knocking my door selling this service.

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