Stress in the workplace happens for a number of reasons – some people suffer due to the volume of work put upon them by a manager or supervisor, others are picked on by colleagues because of their sex, colour or creed, and occasionally, individuals generate their own stress by setting themselves targets which are beyond their capabilities. Stress in the workplace can ruin one’s family life and one’s health, and all three instances above are completely avoidable. Indeed, blame for the occurrence of all three instances can be attributed to an employer.
Employers have a duty to protect their employees from injury and provide a safe environment in which to work. Part of this duty is achieved by preparing a risk assessment of any task which needs to be undertaken in the workplace and ensuring that the individual is capable of performing the task safely. This includes allocating a manageable level of work to an employee and ensuring that they can complete that work to the best of their ability without obstruction or risk of injury. Allowing an employee to be selected as a target by a manager or work colleagues, or by permitting the employee to assume more tasks than they are capable of indicates a lack of risk assessment and a breach of the duty to protect.
Symptoms of Stress in the Workplace
Stress in the workplace is classified as an injury when physical and psychological symptoms begin to manifest. The most typical physical reaction to being under stress is that the brain goes into overdrive – sharpening the hearing and visionary senses and commanding the body to release compounds of glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. This energy rich blood is then exhausted by the brain – leaving other organs not urgently required undernourished, and leading to a temporary shutdown of the immune and digestive systems. If you are suffering from any of the following physical symptoms, it may be because you are experiencing stress in the workplace:-
- Stomach and abdominal pain
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Frequent indigestion
- Racing or thumping heart
- Sweaty palms or forehead
- Sweating when not physically active
This list is not exhaustive and relates to the most typical reactions to stress in the workplace. However, in the natural state of biological affairs, muscles work in opposing pairs – with movement caused when one muscle contracts whilst the other relaxes. Stress in the workplace can result in both muscles working at once, and therefore there is no movement but still muscular tension. If you feel that you may be suffering from stress in the workplace, but none of the above symptoms apply to you, it may be because you are experiencing a muscular reaction. Symptoms of a muscular reaction would include:-
- Pain at the base of the spine
- Pains in the shoulders and necks
- Pains in the chest
- Muscle spasms or nervous tics
Whereas the physical symptoms of stress in the workplace are “personal”- inasmuch as it is only you who is feeling your pain – any psychological symptoms you experience are not so easy to disguise, and will be noticed by others in your work environment. Employers and colleagues should clearly see that something is wrong when you start to display psychological symptoms of stress in the workplace and, where the motivating factor for your stress is work-related, steps should be taken to remove the antagonistic trigger for your stress and arrange for additional support where necessary. Symptoms that you may be unaware you are showing to your colleagues include:-
- Uncharacteristic irritability or frustration
- A lack of concentration or memory
- Erratic mood swings and emotional outbursts
- A loss of your sense of humour
- Eating more frequently than you normally would
- An inability to make decisions
- Self-depreciation and talking about things negatively
- Anxiety and depression
Prolonged stress in the workplace will not only lead to deterioration in your physical and psychological wellbeing, it will exacerbate any existing condition you have, affect the lives of those around you and, as research has shown, ultimately kill you if you are exposed to it long enough.
Treatment for Stress in the Workplace
There are three elements of treatment for stress in the workplace you should pursue if you recognise any of the symptoms mentioned above. The first is diagnosis, and you should make an urgent appointment to visit your local doctor and ensure that none of the symptoms you are experiencing relate to an alternative and potentially more damaging illness. Typically, your doctor will conduct a variety of tests to rule out certain conditions and then discuss with you the reasons why you are demonstrating the symptoms of stress in the workplace.
The second stage of treating stress in the workplace is to cure your immediate ailments. Depending on the symptoms you are experiencing, your doctor may recommend a number of options to you including antidepressants and antihistamines for anxiety, medication for any of the stomach or blood pressure symptoms that are troubling you, counselling and therapy to enable you to manage your stressful environment. He may suggest dietary changes or an increased level of exercise to help with many of the symptoms of stress in the workplace.
However, the biggest factor in the treatment for stress in the workplace is the elimination of what causes the stress in the first place. All companies should have procedures integrated into their health and safety policies explaining what to do if you are victimised in any way, or feel that the responsibilities placed on you are too much to handle. Being able to raise a complaint against a work colleague or manager, or admitting that you are unable to do the task that was set for you, takes a great amount of courage in some environments, and is a step that some people feel unable to take.
Complaining about Stress in the Workplace
Under the Health, Safety and Welfare at Work (2005) Act, you should not be penalised in any way for raising a complaint about an issue you have with any element of the task you have been set, or the environment in which you have to do it. The Employment Equality Acts (1998-2008) place an obligation on all employers to prevent stress in the workplace through harassment or bullying because of your sex, colour or creed, and if your employer fails in this element of his responsibilities, you can make a claim for compensation to the Equality Tribunal.
Whatever procedures your company has in place to protect you from the causes of stress in the workplace should be taken advantage of. An employer is unable to sack you should you raise a complaint about stress in the workplace, as this would contravene the Unfair Dismissals Acts (2007). Even if you leave your employment because of threats made against you or because you have been given an ultimatum (normally in the form of “If you don´t like it, you can get out”), you can apply to the Rights Commissioner for constructive dismissal.
Where the stress in the workplace has led to you being diagnosed with a physical or psychological stress-related illness, you have in fact suffered an injury at the hands of your employer. Should he take no action, or inappropriate action, when you have followed the correct procedures as laid down in the company´s own health and safety policy, you should speak with a solicitor about claiming compensation. Although this is a step that many people may be apprehensive about, using a solicitor to make a claim for compensation on your behalf will lessen the potential for an awkward workplace confrontation when you feel well enough to return to work.
Claiming Compensation for Stress in the Workplace
When you have suffered an injury as a result of stress in the workplace, you are able to make a personal injury claim for compensation against your employer in the same way as if you had suffered a physical injury due to your employer´s negligence. Although claims for personal injury due to stress in the workplace would initially be submitted to the Injuries Board Ireland, it is fair to say that, in many cases, an employer who has not been prepared to take suitable action to prevent stress in the workplace is likely to deny his liability for your injuries, or counter claim that you contributed to your injuries by your own actions. In either scenario, the Injuries Board Ireland will decline to assess your case and issue you with an authorisation to pursue your claim for stress in the workplace compensation through the court system.
Having to go through litigation in the courts to receive compensation for injuries sustained due to stress in the workplace is not as intimidating as it might at first seem. Your solicitor will guide you through any court procedures that you may need to know and, in most instances, it is extremely unlikely that you will have to face your employer in court, as the cases are usually settled by negotiation between your solicitor and the legal team representing your employer´s insurance company. There may be occasions when the insurance company approaches you directly with an early offer of settlement to prevent the need for the case to go to court. At a time when you still may be traumatised by the stress in the workplace you have experienced, a solicitor will be able to advise you whether their offer of early settlement represents a fair and adequate amount of compensation, or whether you should allow him to negotiate a better deal.
Surveys conducted throughout Europe indicate that the levels of stress experienced by employees in the workplace are increasing with the passing of every year. Economic stimulus is often the driving force behind these rising stress levels, with higher targets to be met and fierce competition for the best available jobs. In this environment, it is essential that employees are protected from the factors that will be responsible for making them perform below the best of their abilities – notably the motivators for stress in the workplace.
Where an employer fails in his responsibility to provide a safe environment for his employees to work in, which results in them sustaining an injury, then he is guilty of negligence. Irrespective of his own motivation for failing to provide adequate protection for his employees, the law in Ireland safeguards the rights of employees, and these rights include the facility to claim compensation against an employer who has failed in his duty of care towards you.
- Stress in the workplace can be caused by excessive workloads, harassment and bullying, or even self-inflicted by setting oneself too high performance targets.
- When stress in the workplace occurs, a chain of physical reactions is initiated by the brain which causes the release of harmful acids into the body and the deprivation of oxygen to vital organs.
- Treatment for stress in the workplace is both by medical cure and the elimination of the cause of the problem to prevent a re-occurrence.
- There are a number of laws protecting employees when making a complaint about stress in the workplace, and your employer has an obligation to follow these regulations.
- Your employer also has an obligation to provide a safe environment in which to work, and when stress in the workplace causes you an injury through illness, you are entitled to claim compensation.
- Therefore, it is in your best interests to speak with a solicitor to determent your rights and entitlement to compensation when suffering from stress in the workplace.