Over 11 million days each year are lost due to work-related stress according to the Health and Safety Executive. The true socioeconomic impact of these lost days each year is probably not fully quantifiable but the scale of the loss must mean the impact is significant. Employers can therefore no longer afford to ignore this problem and focus just on physical well-being.
Unfortunately, the law on stress is not set out in one place and is piecemeal, which means it is often difficult for employers to fully appreciate the scope of their obligations. Duties are set out in various pieces of legislation, including The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the Working Time Regulations 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. A further dimension is added as employers also have implied duties, including the obligation to provide a safe system of work. Taking these duties as a whole, employers must however ensure that their staff are not exposed to excessive levels of stress when at work.
A nod to these legal duties in terms of working practices may minimise the risk of a legal claim but may not provide the support staff need. In tackling the issue, management needs to address the main contributors to workplace stress such as excessive workloads, long hours, bullying and harassment; all these factors should not be ignored as they have a negative impact on staff retention and engagement, absence levels and productivity.
Given the scale of the problem, employers do need to act. A shift in approach does not need to involve a large amount of time and resources. As a starting point, there are some simple but effective strategies that can be adopted:
- Have clear polices which create a supportive working culture and provide managers with guidance as to how to deal with performance management, bullying and attendance issues.
- Encourage more conversations about stress. Talking will help you to understand the causes and therefore put in place the right support when it is most needed.
While these simple steps may provide a solution today, employers will also need to gear up and look to the future.
Management research and HR studies are identifying that changing demographics mean employers will need to consider new ways of supporting staff by being more aware of their needs and wishes to create the winning workplace. One thing is clear, employees want to ensure that they have both the mental and physical wellbeing to work for as long as possible in the most productive and efficient way. To attract and retain the best talent, ways of providing the right workplace culture to support employees in fulfilling these aspirations will need to be at the top of the HR agenda.
In line with these findings, the government wants to encourage more discussions about disability and health conditions in the workplace. The introduction of a framework for reporting on disability, mental health and wellbeing for larger employers although voluntary is one step in that direction.
If work related stress is the growing epidemic that the level of lost hours is indicating, then employers need to act now.
From GDPR to sexual harassment in the workplace 2018 was a very busy year for employers. Will employers have a better time of it in 2019?
While workplace practices in relation to data protection and sexual harassment will continue to be main themes, pay, equality, transparency and Brexit will be prominent concerns.
Pay, benefits, and equality
Increases to the wage bill will need to be accounted for and pay transparency will be a high priority for larger organisations.
April will be the busiest time with the annual increase to the National Living Wage and National Minimum Wage (NMW) coming into play. The maximum hourly rate for workers 25 or over will increase to £8.21. While apprentices under 19 will be entitled to £3.90 per hour. Full details of all the age dependent hourly pay increases have been published by the government at www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates.
The latest increases to pension contributions under auto enrolment will apply, with contributions for both employers and employees set to rise from 2% and 3% to 3% and 5%, respectively.
Large private and voluntary sector employers with more than 250 employees will need to publish their comparative pay rates for men and women. It is anticipated that the figures are likely to be heavily scrutinised to establish if the reporting is driving the desired results to reduce significant pay differences. The same group of employers will also need to start preparing for CEO pay gap reporting, with the first pay ratio reports likely to fall due in 2020.
With compliance in mind, employers must ensure from April that the new rules around the content of payslips and who must receive one are recognised in their payroll processes.
Finally, pay will also be a hot topic during the year for the courts and employment tribunal but for different reasons. Two areas to look out for will be:
Several big name retailers are being challenged about their pay practices when it comes to paying male depot staff more than female retail workers. Whilst the work is different, the argument is that the roles have a comparable value, so the pay should be the same. These types of claim are complex and can lead to significant back pay claims, which should stand as warning to employers to ensure staff are paid fairly and equally.
- National minimum wage for sleep-ins
Last year the Court of Appeal decided in the case of Mencap v Tomlinson-Blake that individuals working on sleep-in shifts (e.g. nurses, care workers etc), would not be entitled to NMW for time spent asleep even though they had to be “available for work”. Given the impact this decision has on thousands of workers particularly in the care sector, Unison has sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
Settled status for EU nationals
We could not get away without mentioning Brexit. What seemed certain at the start of December 2018 was the EU settlement scheme allowing EU workers currently living in the UK to apply for the right to stay in the UK indefinitely. However, at the time of writing the exit deal had not been voted on, with the suggestion that in the case of a no-deal scenario there may be stricter requirements for applicants. Hopefully by the time you read this article there will be greater clarity and certainty for employers and EU nationals.
Workplace disputes do occur and the use of non-disclosures agreements (“NDAs”) are a common place occurrence usually finding their way into settlement agreements. In most cases a balance between commercial and personal interests can be reached. However, the government has decided to bring forward its review of NDAs referring to them as “unethical”, with the concern that workplace harassment is being left unchallenged. For the time being there is no change to the law but following the review there may be greater restriction on the use of NDAs, sanctions for misuse and a possible extension to the whistleblowing protection. NDAs are therefore another one to watch out for.
By our assessment, 2019 is likely to be equally busy, if not busier for employers when it comes to people management and employment law.