How to manage work related stress absences

Posted in : HR Updates on 21 June 2016
Neil McLeese
Personnel & Training Services Ltd
Issues covered:

I am sure we all could cite experiences of employees who, faced with legitimate disciplinary action, go ‘on the sick’ with work-related stress as an attempt to frustrate or prolong the process.

However, it is clear that the majority of work-related stress absences are genuine and should be managed proactively and empathically.

In this article I will be suggesting how we as HR Professionals can help our organisations to manage work-related stress absences in a proactive way which facilitates the employee’s return to work within a reasonable timeframe and minimises the chance of a reoccurrence in the future.

But before we explore the process it is important to understand what stress is and what the main causes of stress at work are:

What is Stress?

Stress is defined as “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise”.

This causes the body to think it is under attack and switch to ‘flight or fight’ mode. The problem with this is that the blood flow is redirected to the muscles needed to fight or flee and causes the brain function to be minimised i.e. a lack of ability to think straight.

What are the main causes of stress at work?

The CIPD Absence Management 2015 Survey reports the causes of stress at work are as follows:

reasons for stress related absence

What is the process?

1. Meet to try and determine stressors

It is important to meet with an employee as soon as practicable to discuss the reasons for their absence and to determine whether the stress is generated from the workplace, or it is attributed to some other cause.

The nature of the ‘stressors' involved can also be determined at this meeting (e.g. harassment, environmental, workload, professional, relationships etc.) and the potential effects this has on the individual employee (e.g. emotionally, physically, mentally, interpersonal relationships at work or elsewhere, attendance/performance at work).

Please note that if the stressors could potentially form part of a Bullying or Harassment complaint, the employee should be reminded of the complaints procedure in the event that they may want it to be dealt with formally.

2. Obtain permission for medical report from their own GP or from an Occupational Health Consultant

This may help get information that an employee finds hard to communicate directly, particularly how the stress is affecting them and their general health.  It might also help to identify any other current or previous health related issues which could be having an impact also.

It is important to explain to employees why you need to get a medical report and how it may be beneficial to their situation. However, where the employee refuses to permit such a request for a medical report, the Company may, eventually, be forced to take a decision on the possibility of any phased return to work, or even the termination of employment due to lack of capability without the benefit of medical opinion. 

3. Investigate the known stressors

This will allow the Company to make a decision on whether the individual’s job needs to be redesigned or there are sources of stress which can be eliminated or even reduced.

4. Review the medical report with management and consider suggested adjustments for viability

The information contained in the medical report will be confidential but will allow the Company to make a decision in relation to, where practicable, the possibility of transfer to more suitable work, adjustments which may assist, or the possibility of termination of the employee’s contract of employment due to lack of capability.

5. Meet to discuss the report and develop a return to work strategy

At any such meeting any option detailed by the Doctor or Occupational Health Consultant indicating that the employee may be fit for work if certain adjustments are put in place will be discussed.  Where the Company can accommodate the adjustments suggested in order to facilitate a phased return to work, these should be confirmed to the employee. 

This may result in an initial return on a limited number of days per week or hours per day, leading up to a full return to work.  This strategy may also include temporary restrictions on particular duties which have previously posed difficulties for the employee.

6. Monitor going forward

At the return to work meeting both the Manager and the employee should formally agree that they understand the measures which are being put in place and whether they are temporary or permanent.

The Company should monitor the employee throughout the adjustment period and their Supervisor/Manager will meet with the employee at the end of the agreed adjustment period in order to establish if normal working practice will be resumed.  Each situation should be treated individually.

This article is correct at 21/06/2016

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Neil McLeese
Personnel & Training Services Ltd

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