Stress has become a big issue in modern society. As a result, the number of personal injury claims against employers, is increasing. David Sharp discusses new legislation that is being brought in to clarify the position of both the employee and the employer
20 August 2004
The word stress is tossed about with such happy abandon nowadays by everybody from business leaders to new age quacks, that its meaning has been lost to us. At its simplest level, the dictionary definition of stress is 'the distress caused by a demand on physical or mental energy'. More specifically, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has called it 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them'.
In either case, one thing is clear: stress is a big issue. It has been estimated that up to five million people in the UK feel stressed. The annual cost to the UK economy is now estimated at some £3.7 billion with up to 13.4 million working days lost each year.
The question is: why has this become such a major problem in recent years? Are we to believe that modern life is so much more stressful than it was for those who lived through the blitz, for example? Cynics would argue that the more you measure it, the more stressed people become. But can that really be true?
There is a great deal of value in looking at the response to pressure and the pressure itself. Much of what we mean by stress is determined by the individual's response to perhaps perfectly normal demands from an employer. But remember that all employers have a duty of care to their employees so, although there is at present no specific statute or other regulation controlling stress levels permitted in the workplace, broad principles apply in the same way as they would to any personal injury claim.
In his book Faster, the author James Gleick illustrates the importance of the individual with his description of two well-recognised personality types. Type-A people jab the call button while waiting for the lift in the futile hope that this will make it arrive sooner. They have a chronic sense of time urgency, are hard-driven, status-conscious and ambitious. As a result, type-A personalities are more likely to suffer from stress and are two or three times more likely to suffer from angina, heart attacks and sudden death than easy-going type-Bs, regardless of other factors such as smoking.
But it would be wrong to conclude that people suffering from stress just need to pull themselves together. The point about the relationship between time awareness and stress is well-made, because there are external factors that make all of us feel more stressed, regardless of our personality types.
Certainly there is a widespread and growing perception that we are time poor. The problem is exacerbated by technology such as laptops, PDAs and mobile phones that follow us around everywhere and have blurred the boundaries between our work, home and social environments. We are also far more likely to work long hours, have set targets to meet and are far more likely to skip lunch and breaks than we were in the past. So it is not surprising that the main cause of stress-related absence, according to a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), is workload, cited by 68 per cent of respondents.
The recognition of the role these factors play in making us feel stressed is just one reason why we are seeing increasing amounts of legislation aimed at controlling the way we view working time. The Working Time Regulations 1998 came into force on 1 October 1998. They have been amended by the Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2001 and the Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2003. Two versions of DTI guidance have been published to assist companies to comply with the regulations which protect workers against working too many hours, not receiving proper rest and allowing them minimum paid holiday rights.
But such regulations do not try to enforce working hours on everybody. Employees can opt out of the 48-hour week, and other rights can be softened or extended in special cases or by agreement. The regulations also do not apply to some sectors, or non-working time.
As well as the working time regulations, the HSE will conclude a consultation on the issue in August, then follow it up with a standard in November. The good news is that many employers are pre-empting its findings by taking action already. The CIPD survey noted that over three-quarters of employers are already taking steps to deal with the issue. We should all welcome such moves which will clarify a complex and damaging issue for employers and employees alike.
David Sharp is managing director of Workplace Law Group