So we’ve had a lot to digest so far in Knowledge November, especially weeks 2 and 3 telling us about what the HSE expects us to be doing. I also gave you some ideas, on a one to one level with employees, to discuss the stress that they might be experiencing.


This week we are going to look at some of the other additional things employers might think about doing.



Additional actions employers can take

Some other actions employers can take:
    1.   Think about the culture of the organisation: what changes need to be made to create a mentally healthy workplace? Is it open, supportive and blame-free? Are people encouraged to talk about how they feel?
    2.   Have a budget dedicated to this. It is said that for every £1 invested you can expect a £4.20 return (see the Stevenson/Farmer review). Treat it as an investment.
    3.   Include stress levels as a discussion point in team meetings.  Have a traffic light system, green, amber, red – where are we at and what can we do about it? The same could be included in 1:1 meetings with line managers?
    4.   Talk about how decisions are made, consult employees before change happens and include them all in the communications about changes.
    5.   Review job descriptions and objectives so that everybody has clarity.  Don’t leave people in the dark about what it is they are supposed to be doing.
    6.   Assess resourcing: are there areas of the organisation where there are insufficient staff and support? What is going to be done to prevent burn out? 
    7.   Risk assess workloads: are they achievable?
    8.   Discuss with people where training needs may lie. Acknowledge how employees can develop their skills.
    9.   Acknowledge staff contributions, give positive feedback, remember to say thank you and recognise success.
    10.   Reduce distractions, disturbances and noise.  Let people wear headphones if it helps them to concentrate. Provide quiet areas. Is it any wonder that stress levels have gone up since we have all gone open plan?
    11.   The HSE have developed something called the ‘Talking toolkit’.  It doesn’t pretend to be a panacea for dealing with stress but it may be a useful starting point or inspire you to develop your own talking toolkits for your workplace. This again goes back to the idea of managers being able to talk with their staff and the importance of having conversations as the foundation stone of good management practice. Talking not emails!
    12.   Equip staff to practice mindfulness. There are lots of resources out there but we love Mindful Work Ltd’s starter kit.
    13.   Tackle bullying and harassment where it is reported. Don’t just move the person on to another department without tackling the root cause. Have we actually caused the person, through the pressure they are under, to behave in ways which we don’t tolerate? If so, what steps can we take to prevent it from happening again?
    14.   Encourage everyone to take their holidays and genuinely switch off. No email!
    15.   Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan. Between them, the ACAS Guide and the Stevenson/Farmer Review make the following suggestions for inclusion in an employer’s mental health plan:
      • The employer’s commitment to promoting positive mental health, what its objectives are and how it intends to measure itself against those objectives.
      • How the employer intends to identify and tackle the causes of mental ill health in its workplace.
      • How the employer is improving the physical environment to improve employee health.
      • How the employer encourages and supports employees to engage in physical activity, staff networks or social action.
      • The support available for staff experiencing mental ill health. 
    1.   Develop a stress and mental wellbeing policy for the organisation. Get senior leaders to advocate support for it.
    2.   Be prepared to adjust job roles to reduce the pressure the incumbent is under. If necessary recruit and deploy additional resource – remember what we said in week one – the employer is responsible.
    3.   Encourage self-care. Let people take sufficient time away: lunch breaks, enjoying time out of the workplace pursuing hobbies. Don’t guilt people when they do things that will be good for their mental health.
    4.   Think about lone workers – who is isolated or may feel that way? Who might be travelling frequently and away from home? What parts of the organisation might suffer from short-term contracts, low pay, instability, long-working hours or other risks? Can you risk profile the different job roles to understand where stress may come from so that different line managers can be trained on what might be relevant for their area?
    5.   Can you have mental health champions? Are people trained to recognise mental health issues (things like the mental health first aid certificate). Can they be empowered to give out prescriptions that the organisation can support?
    6.   Have a policy on email expectations: tell people no-one is expected to send emails after 5pm or respond to them, especially over weekends or on days that are not their working days (particularly important for part-timers).
    7.   Ask employees what wellbeing initiatives would make a difference to them.

What happens when things go wrong?

A recent example in the Aberdeen Employment Tribunal illustrates what can occur when an employer gets its wrong as regards stress in the workplace. 
In this case the employee was a Senior Cancer Nurse within the NHS who developed a depressive illness after a period of staff shortages.  The employer was found to have dealt with the issue in an insensitive and unreasonable manner.  At one point the Employee had been left without a line manager and short staffing in the department had lasted four years. This is the first alarm bell: any employer risk assessing these circumstances should have foreseen that failures like this left the employee vulnerable.
During the period of staff shortages, one of his qualified colleagues retired and was replaced by somebody who had minimal experience in the particular department they worked in.  The Employee became the most qualified person in the department.  Two specialised nurses were recruited but this added pressure to the Employee as he had to train and support them, having never had to line manage anybody before.  This was when he developed his depressive illness, describing to the tribunal how he dreaded going to work.  Again, it was reasonably foreseeable that adding to workload might cause a health problem.
He was signed off due to stress at work.  The employer took some four months to refer him to Occupational Health even though its policy suggested that those circumstances were ones in which a referral would be made.  This is a classic mistake: failing to follow your own process.
When the referral came, he was sent to a nurse manager rather than an actual occupational health specialist dealing in stress at work.  Having been to three consultations and not being offered any treatment, and continuing to suffer with anxiety and stress related to work, he began to see a psychotherapist privately.  He did eventually return to work some 10 months later.
Within less than a fortnight, an anonymous complaint was received by the employer that the Employee had carried out paid work whilst signed off sick.  An investigation found that he had committed no wrongdoing but the complaint and having to go through the investigation process took him back to square one as regards his stress. This begs the question whenever we are conducting investigations what do we do to look after the person who is the subject of the complaint?
He was signed off work again for another 42 days and was invited to a meeting to discuss his options but was not advised that the meeting was a formal one or that the termination of his employment was one of the options. This alone would probably make the dismissal unfair.
The meeting lasted less than 10 minutes and no minutes were taken.  He was informed that he was going to be dismissed on the grounds of ill health with no other options being discussed.  He felt that this outcome was premeditated but in general he had received next to no support from his employer. Employers should be doing everything they can to look at alternatives before dismissal is being considered.
Unsurprisingly, the Tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair and that the Employee had been discriminated against on the grounds of a disability.  In the words of the Tribunal “these were not the actions of a reasonable employer”.  The parties had been given 4 weeks to agree compensation before a remedies hearing is set.

Stress and Well-Being Policies

An employer may choose to set out its approach towards stress and mental wellbeing (whether resulting from acts inside or outside the workplace) in a policy. Staff then have a central reference point from which they can understand the employer’s position and be directed to resources that they may need. 
A policy should be created in consultation with staff and their representatives where possible and may include:
  • The employer’s commitment to promote positive mental wellbeing and to tackle the causes of work-related stress. 
  • The aim to provide a workplace where everyone feels able to talk openly about their mental health and not fear discrimination, bullying or harassment. There should be clear and open channels of communication and effective methods of investigating reported workplace incidents or unacceptable behaviour.
  • Advice on the measures that will be taken to monitor and, where necessary, eradicate work-related stress and to support mental wellbeing at work. These may include:
    • including stress in risk assessments, in which case the policy can set out how stress risks are going to be assessed, how they will be carried out and who will be responsible;
    • explaining the role and expectations of managers and supervisors. For a policy to be effective, managers need to be trained to assess and manage the risks of stress on an ongoing basis. Employers need to be clear about what they require managers to do and how they will be enabled to do it; and
    • training for managers (who will implement the policy) and for staff (to raise awareness and develop skills).
  • Recognition of the impact that work-related stress or mental ill health may have on performance or behaviour and a commitment to provide appropriate support and adjustments where possible. For example, an employer may commit to making reasonable adjustments to job roles and working conditions to accommodate disabled employees or reduce causes of stress, where possible and necessary.
  • A request that anyone who feels that they are suffering from work-related stress or mental ill health seeks help at the earliest opportunity in the knowledge that the employer will do its best to support them.
  • Details of all support services in place to tackle work-related stress or mental ill health. An employer should indicate how it will make internal support available whether by providing training and workshops on work-life balance and the avoidance of stress, facilitating mutual support groups (encouraging staff to informally support each other), appointing mental health champions and mental health first aiders or dedicating members of its HR department as points of contact. It should also state what, if any, external support is available such as EAPs or occupational health advisers. 
  • The processes it will use to reintegrate staff absent from work due to stress or mental ill health back into the workplace. 
Employers should ensure that they can (and do) follow through on commitments made in a policy. 
As with all policies, a stress and mental wellbeing policy should be kept under review to ensure that it remains relevant and achieves its aims.


You can view Anna’s video discussing stress and well-being policies here.


We hope that you have enjoyed reading this year’s Knowledge November.  We always welcome feedback and ideas for next year, so please do feel free to message us with your feedback at


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