What is an Employer’s Obligations and Responsibilities Regarding Workplace Stress on Employees?

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On 8 April 2013, Safe Work Australia released its first report examining the economic impact of work-related mental stress to businesses and the Australian economy. The report found that work-related stress is costing Australian businesses more than $10 billion a year. Work-related stress claim forms amounted to the most expensive worker’s compensation claim forms, as workers were often absent from work for significant periods of time.

These statistics amply demonstrate that an employer’s responsibility to avoid work-related stress is not simply about complying with health and safety laws, but a matter of good business practice and supporting the Australian economy.

What is work-related stress?

Work-related stress is the term to describe the mental, physical, and emotional responses of an employee who is experiencing stress as a result of work demands, and perceives that they are not capable of meeting those demands.

While stress may appear to be a mental health issue, if experienced over a period of time it can and does affect the physical health of a person. Stress can manifest itself over time to cause chronic fatigue, heart conditions, high blood pressure, or even acute muscle pains. Stress can be debilitating, both mentally and physically, over time.

The Safe Work Australia report found that employees who appeared to have the highest incident of work-related stress were those with: a) high responsibility of care for the members of the general public or b) worked in dangerous or risky situations such as train drivers, police officers, ambulance officers etc.

An employer shouldn’t only be concerned about meeting legal obligations, but also carrying out a good business practice and managing the levels of work-related stress amongst employees. Employers are responsible under both state and federal legislation to ensure that their employees do not suffer work-related stresses.

Responsibilities under state legislation

The various Work, Health, and Safety legislative regimes across the states provide that an employer has a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of their workers so far as is reasonably practicable. It is therefore important that every employer dedicates some time to put in place protocols that address the mental health of employees. It is also important to ensure that the workplace knows and is educated about these policies and protocols, so that employees feel that they work in an environment supportive of work-related stress issues, and that their employer will respond to rather than ignore these stresses.

An employer is able to meet their legal workplace health and safety obligations simply by establishing a best practice model for monitoring work-related stress. For instance:

  • Encourage communication: Effective communication between managerial staff and employees is critical to ensuring mental health stress is addressed and not ‘swept under the carpet’ in the hope that it will go away. If an employer recognises the early warning signs of work-related stress – such as poor work performance, unplanned absences, or erratic and emotional responses – this too can address the issue before it is too late
  • Respond supportively: Employers shouldn’t negate the perceptions of the employee, but respond to them by making reasonable adjustments to their workload. For example, an employee may have a particular need that can be addressed to reduce their work-related stress. Recognising family commitments and being open to flexible workplace arrangements can help reduce significant stress levels, particularly for working mothers
  • Apply policies: Ensure that workplace policies are in place to address bullying and sexual harassment. This conduct is a significant contributor to work-related stress. Employees could be trained on these matters to ensure they do not happen. Routine consultations with employees could also be encouraged as workplace policy, providing a support system and an opportunity for employees to address any possible issues or stresses they may have.

Responsibilities under other types of legislation

The Commonwealth Fair Work Act (2009) provides that it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee in the workplace (s351). Discrimination is another factor that contributes towards work-related stress. It is the employer’s responsibility to inform employees of their obligations under this Act and to ensure that any discrimination is addressed.

Employers have a primary legal duty to ensure a safe workplace. This includes the responsibility to manage work-related stress. The upshot of good management of employees is also good business outcomes, less workers’ compensation claims, and supporting the Australian economy.

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