Firstly, it should be pointed out that stress is not the same as pressure. A certain degree of pressure motivates people to perform at their best.
However, when there is excessive pressure, an employee may be unable to meet the demands with which they are faced. At this point, workplace stress may develop.
Where the optimum level of pressure has been exceeded, the employer has failed to pay sufficient attention to the following areas:
- Job design
- Work organisation
Anyone, no matter what their level of responsibility is, may suffer work-related stress.
Workplace stress and the law
Several pieces of legislation relate to stress in the workplace and its contributing factors.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers must ensure that their staff have a safe and healthy working environment.
In relation to risk, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 state that the employer should actively identify risks, and must implement adequate controls if there is the likelihood that stress could lead to ill health.
Stress can be exacerbated by poor working conditions or excessive working hours.
Computer users are covered by the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992. A risk assessment is needed, because upper limb disorders and eye discomfort may result from prolonged use, especially if chairs and screens are incorrectly adjusted.
With regard to the hours an employee works, the Working Time Regulations 1998 state a 48‑hour weekly limit, but employees are often asked to waive their right to this limit, and may feel under obligation to do so.
If an offence is committed, then, under the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008, there is a wider range of sentencing options (including the risk of a custodial sentence) compared with what was previously available, as well as greater flexibility in trying cases. Crown courts may be used for cases that would previously have been tried in magistrates’ courts.