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Employee Benefits for Mental Health in the 21st Century

Introduction

Every century comes with its own sets of insurrection and revolution. Among many other amendments to the society, extensive mental health awareness attaches an extra feather to the cap of 21st Century. With every passing day, mental health awareness is taking baby steps towards getting more recognition though the office culture turns an almost blind eye to the subject in its entirety. Thus, in this following analysis, we will critically discuss the scope of employees receiving their due benefits for mental health issues caused by workplace stress and how the law still fails to recognise the significance of the same and widely favours the employers and conclude the analysis with new found insights into different codified laws on mental health.

The negative impact of stress

People's negative reactions to increased pressure are referred to as stress. There is a distinct difference between pressure, which comes in the course of a normal day of work and can be empowering, and stress, which occurs when the pressure of one’s obligations becomes unbearable.

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Although the term is quite self-explanatory, workplace stress can be defined as the adverse impact on employees’ mental health due to excessive burden which goes beyond their ability to cope at the workplace. According to the Health and Safety Executive, during 2015-2016more than 40% of all reported cases in the UK, were caused by stress experienced at their respective workplace.

A method that has been widely used to assess the degree of work-related stress and the steps that can be taken to reduce it, the Work Stress Scale (WSS) is a tool helping individuals to measure the level of stress they are experiencing in the following broad domains:

The topic of workplace stress has been relatively well- addressed by the legislature. For example, since 1900’s workplace stress has been given increased recognition under various codified laws. Furthermore, the scope of this legislation has been gradually broadened. As an illustration, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is one of the oldest legislation outlining a number of guidelines for employers on the steps they need to take in order to provide their employees with safe work environment. This Act also makes employers responsible for any risks arising from unsafe work environment of whatsoever nature. In addition, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, provides a clear guideline for the employers to conduct risk assessment on regular basis to identify any potential risk to the employees’ health.

Furthermore, the Equality Act 2010 provides clear guidelines to the employers with respect to discrimination due to workplace mental stress. It also states that employers must make reasonable adjustment to the workplace in order to make it more suitable for the affected employees. Another notable piece of legislation is the Working Time Regulations 1988, which expressly protects employees from being overworked and puts strict limits on the duration of the work time. The Regulations also state that employees are entitled to paid holidays.

Another apt example is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Since this legislation provides for criminal sanctions, the claim made by the employee under this Act needs to be of a serious nature, the event complained of must have occurred more than once and it must have specifically targeted the claimant, causing him/her excessive distress. It is submitted that the strict provisions of this Act have a wide scope, providing employees with a big safety net against toxic and normalized work stress.

If we critically discuss the negative impact of workplace stress, we would face the obstacle named capitalism. In world where capitalists feed off underpaid workers and unpaid overtimes are the norms, it is no wonder that the apparent connection between workplace stress and mental health receives almost no recognition; because once it does, the employers must account for the well-being of the employees. In the light of recent scientific studies the UK has definitely raised the bar for providing due recognition to workplace stress and mental health disability. However, it is arguable that the whole scenario still lacks compassion. The workplace ethics of different multinational companies still serve their employees since they are ignoring the toxic connection between stress and success. In addition, employees who decide to take care of their wellbeing face unjustified discrimination. This issue has received the attention of the UK courts as well.

Does the existing legal framework favour employers in mental health-based disputes?

The short answer to this is simple – it does by not providing employees with a holistic legal framework addressing the subject in its entirety. Although the UK has introduced different pieces of legislation, as discussed above, the objective of which is to provide some protections for employees suffering from work-related stress, the degree of severity of the issue has still been widely ignored in all relevant legislation to date. For example, the Equality Act 2010, Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Working Time Regulations 1988 include workplace stress and mental health disability in its ambit but they do not define them distinctively, which would help hold employers under a stricter accountability. For example, almost all UK codified laws provide the employers with guidelines to the effect that they must ensure the safety of their workplace. However, there is very little inclusion of the term ‘workplace stress.’ In addition, its impact on mental health has arguably not been widely discussed. While UK legislation impliedly talks about workplace stress, it expressly places the condition under the heading of health more generally. This has been proven to work in favour of employers, particularly with respect to winning litigation.

It is arguable that the prospects of successfully demanding redress with regard to work related stress are very slim and there are a handful of suggestions available to an employee, who chooses to sue their employer for injury to their mental health due to workplace stress. There are two principle legal avenues which said employee may take: –

A personal injury lawsuit. A personal injury lawsuit will fall under the category of law of negligence. In this case, only the presence of stress will not establish a prima facie case, rather an injury of psychiatric nature has to be established. Also, the same shall be assessed under the Judicial College Guidelines for the assessment of general damages.

Litigation on the basis of disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Although this a fairly new area of the law,, work related stress is considered to be covered by the anti-discrimination legislation. However, an injury of psychiatric nature should be established first.

As has been mentioned earlier, legislation does not explicitly recognize or define workplace stress and/or provide in depth insights on the same subject. UK courts were left to, therefore, relying on their own interpretation of the existing legislation under the Golden Rule doctrine and on the precedents set by the higher UK courts. As mental health risks and personal injury litigation, related to workplace stress and its severe effect on the mental health, is a fairly recent concept, UK courts arguably do not have much references at their disposal with regard to cases of workplace stress related mental health litigation.

Thus, without any hint of an argument, employers shall always have the upper hand in a claim of workplace stress. While one of the reasons of this circumstance is the ambiguous nature and diagnosis of mental health issues, most of the other reasons come down from the part of the employees. The severe effect of bearing the cost of litigation against an employer is something extremely courageous. Under the circumstances, where in a capitalists society a worker is underpaid, a litigation claim which has zero to little chance of providing the employee with any kind of compensation, it is no surprise that not many employees favour such claims. Law is ever changing with the needs of the citizens of a country. Thus, if the needy decide to take a step back, the other side wins by default.

Workplace stress related litigation

The main factor affecting the judicial decisions in cases of workplace stress litigation are the ‘foreseeable nature’ of the stress related mental health illness or breakdown, experienced by the particular employee. In the landmark case of Walker v. Northumberland County Council (1995), the employee went through two mental breakdowns in the workplace. The court held that the events were foreseeable by the employer who, nevertheless, chose to ignore the evidence of their employee’s health issues. Thus, the employer was made to pay their employee reasonable monetary damages and to undertake other relevant measures ensuring that the incidents do not repeat.

Affirming the above case, UK courts decided the case of Brown v. London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and Cheltenham Borough Council v Laird in a similar way. In this case, the court held that the employers are impliedly liable to take care of their employee’s health. The court cited the 1990’s case of Johnstone v. Bloomsbury Health Authority as being the first case to hold employers accountable in cases where employees’ mental health has suffered due to extreme work-related stress.

However, not all such decisions were in favour of the claimants. Due to the unavailability of reasonable and clear codified law on the subject of injury to mental health caused by workplace stress, many employers are spared the responsibility on the ground of employee’s stress being not of ‘foreseeable nature’. In the case of Hatton v. Sutherland, the court expressly stated that the onus of proving that the employee’s mental health injury was of foreseeable nature falls on the claimant. The court followed similar reasoning in the case of Barber v. Somerset County Council, and EBR Attridge Law LLP v Coleman where the employer was exempted from providing the employee with any kind of monetary damages because the employee’s mental health disability was found to be not sufficiently foreseeable.

The leading precedent of Hatton v. Sutherland remains influential a decade later. In the 2015’s case of Easton v. B&Q, the UK High Court dismissed the plea of the claimant for failing to meet the foreseeability test and held that the employer should not be held accountable for the claimant’s mental health injury due to workplace stress.

The discussed cases show a clear trend among the UK courts to ignore the issue of workers’ mental health. It is submitted that the issue needs greater consideration on the part of UK judges. Furthermore, the courts need to create a better framework protecting the legitimate rights of workers while providing proper recognition of mental health disability.

The avenues to seek redress in claims concerning workplace stress and mental health injury; practical considerations

The legislative and executive branches and the judiciary taken together lack the necessary authority to provide employees with permanent protections against excessive workplace stress. Thus, employees can make several practical propositions to their employer with the purpose of making a valid stand on the subject or they could seek relief outside the courts.

Approach the employer with a demand for flexible working hours.

Take account of his actual working hours, in order to establish whether he has been working overtime. Recall that the decisive factor in cases concerning workplace stress, remains the foreseeability test. It appears that for UK courts, the test could be met if one could prove that they had been through a mental breakdown.

The employee can have recourse to the Equality Act 2010, if his stress is caused by his disability; this would place him within the ambit of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act.

Another practical way to deal with workplace stress is to approach the Human Resources (HR) Manager. The employee can do this by email. It is always a good practice to maintain regular communication with the HR with respect to the subject. In this way, if the matter goes to litigation, the employer will not be able to deny any knowledge of the employee’s condition.

If the employee is suffering from chronic mental health issues which gets triggered by the workplace stress, the employee can file a formal complaint for disability discrimination under several Health Acts as discussed above.

Importance of employee mental health

The mental wellbeing of employees is increasingly being recognised as a critical determinant of their overall health. In fact, poor mental health and occupational stressors have been known to contribute to a variety of physical illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders, among others. Furthermore, poor mental health can lead to employee burnout, which has a significant impact on their ability to participate meaningfully in both their personal and professional lives.

According to data from various countries across the world, mental health issues are a contributing factor prompting many workers to quit their jobs. For example, around 58 percent of work-related illnesses in the Netherlands are mental health-related. Furthermore, it is estimated that around 30–40% of sicknesses in the United Kingdom, are due to mental illness. Employers and companies are directly impacted by mental health issues due to increased absenteeism, a negative effect on efficiency and earnings, and increased costs to deal with the issue.

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For example, mental health issues have a negative effect on employee productivity. Workplace stress is a leading cause of workplace illness, productivity loss, and human error. This translates to more sickness absence, high employee turnover, and poor organisational efficiency, as well as a potential rise in injuries due to human error. Work-related stress may trigger heart disease, back pain, headaches, stomach problems, or a variety of minor illnesses, as well as psychological effects like anxiety and depression, lack of focus, and poor decision-making.

Conclusion

This essay examined the rules for claims about stress related illnesses with a view of determining whether they are restrictive and favour employers. Workmen's compensation cases are determined on a case-by-case basis; however, there are different approaches some more lenient than others. Although the merits of such cases are still being debated in the courts, a strong movement toward a more liberal compensation has emerged. It is debatable whether employers and administrators can shoulder the financial pressures of stress-related disabilities. Mental disorder, according to some studies, is just as painful as a laceration or a fracture, although its underlying causes are more complicated. It is not only complicated and contentious to identify the source of an employee's tension, but those responsible, such as HR managers must also clarify and record how they are planning to deal with it, going forward.

Employers can face difficulties in the near future, as more attorneys specialise in stress-related lawsuits. Many jurisdictions require managers to be informed about the signs of stress, the trends in stress- related mental illness claims, the compensation rules related to workers, and the most significant court decisions.

However, the above referred scope has very slim chances in the near future. Although it is true that mental health issues are getting more and more recognition, the development of the concept in a workplace has a long way to go. With handful of the case studies favouring the employees, it is safe to assume that in a case of a claim against an employer in this field will continue to favour the employers.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Article

Article ‘Workers' Compensation and Stress Claims: Remedial Intent and Restrictive Application, by Thomas S Cook

accessed on 01st May, 2021

Journals

A step-by-step approach using the Management Standards. Health and Safety Executive, UK; 2007. Managing the causes of work-related stress.

European Network for Workplace Health Promotion. Newsletter 09/2010/.

Grundemann RW, Nijboer D, Schellart AJ. Den Haag: Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment; 1991. The work-relatedness of drop out from work for medical reasons.

Houtman IL, Kompier MA. Risk factors and occupational risk groups for work stress in the Netherlands. In: Sauter SL, Murphy LR, editors. Organizational Risk Factors for Job Stress. Washington DC: APA Press; 1995.

Naik NM. M Phil Thesis, NIMHANS Bangalore. 2008. A study on stress and coping amongst employees of manufacturing industry.

O’Leary L. Mental Health at work. Occup Health Rev. 1993;45:23–6.

Shekhar S. M Phil Thesis, NIMHANS Bangalore. Job satisfaction and stress amongst professional social workers

Thippeswamy. M Phil Thesis, NIMHANS Bangalore. 2007. A study on stress and coping patterns amongst business process outsourcing personnel.

Verma M. M Phil Thesis, NIMHANS Bangalore. 2001. Cognitive-Behavioural Stress Management for women software professionals

World Health Organization. 2005. Mental health policies and programs in the workplace.

Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, c.37, S.2(1)

Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, c.37, S.2(1)

Protection Against Harassment Act, 1997, s.1

The Equality Act 2010, c.15, c.4, c.5, c.6

Work Time Regulation, 1988, c.5

Cases

Barber v. Somerset County Council, CC [2004] UKHL 13

Cheltenham Borough Council v Laird [2009] EWHC 1253 (QB)

EBR Attridge Law LLP v Coleman (2009) UKEAT 0071/09

Easton v. B&Q, [2015] EWHC 880 (QB)

Hatton v. Sutherland, (2002) EWCA Civ 76 (2002) PIQR P241

J v DLA Piper UK LLP (2010) UKEAT 0263/09/1506

Johnstone v. Bloomsbury Health Authority, [1992] QB 333

R (AN) v MHRT [2005] EWCA Civ 1605

Walker v. Northumberland County Council, [1995] 1 All ER 737


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