COMMENT PLATFORM: Steps must be taken to protect staff from stress Stress can help make us more efficient, but companies need to make provision for staff who suffer too much, says Dr David Lewis.

The recent award of pounds 67,000 to former Birmingham City Council housing officer Beverley Lancaster, after a court upheld claims that work place stress had ruined her health, should focus the minds of PR employers on what liabilities they may occur.

The recent award of pounds 67,000 to former Birmingham City Council

housing officer Beverley Lancaster, after a court upheld claims that

work place stress had ruined her health, should focus the minds of PR

employers on what liabilities they may occur.



What is the likelihood of a Klondike-like rush to law by those working

in what is undoubtedly a stressful industry, with long hours, constantly

changing workloads and often hard to please clients?



No less importantly, what can employers do to safeguard the mental and

physical wellbeing of their employees?



As far as legal liability is concerned, the landmark case is that of

John Walker versus Northumberland County Council.



In 1986, 57-year-old Walker, a senior social services officer with the

council since 1970, suffered a nervous breakdown. His symptoms included

mental exhaustion, acute anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to

cope with stress.



Despite these problems, he was eager to return to work and, in March

1987 resumed his old job. As his workload increased between March and

July 1987, Walker again experienced excessive stress and suffered

another breakdown in late-September. In February 1988, he was dismissed

by the council on the grounds of permanent ill health.



At the High Court, Mr Justice Colman found his employers had acted

unreasonably, specifically in not providing extra support for Walker

even when aware of his psychological problems. He was given leave to

claim up to pounds 200,000.



The key issue arising from this sad case is that the employer’s duty of

care extends to taking reasonable steps to protect staff from

foreseeable physical and psychological risk.



Since people differ in their ability to cope with stress, identifying

just what those foreseeable risks may be can raise practical

difficulties.



Once an employee is known to have a particular susceptibility to stress,

however, the employer must take reasonable measures to safeguard him or

her from any further harm.



Some employees develop better personal and professional strategies for

coping with stresses than others. But no matter how resilient,

situations can arise in which a combination of circumstances results in

staff falling victim to excessive stress.



As a therapist friend of mine put it, dealing with stress is like

wrestling alligators. However good you are at it, there may still come a

time when you are overwhelmed.



Becoming overwhelmed today can prove not just a tragedy for the

individual but an expensive one for an employer. In the light of this,

companies should take three steps to safeguard both themselves and their

employees.



First, they need to pinpoint activities or tasks likely to generate high

levels of work-related stress and identify the actions necessary to

reduce or eliminate that risk.



Second, they must train managers to recognise stress symptoms and create

an environment which allows stressed employees to find help within their

work place.



Finally, they must produce policy guidelines as to how problems should

be referred to the appropriate experts and any recommended remedial

actions implemented.



When managed correctly, stress is vital to our health and happiness.



Under reasonable pressure we perform more effectively, more efficiently

and more happily. If allowed to run out of control, however, stress

rapidly turns into distress, destroying the lives and hopes of those who

become its unwitting victims.



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