How to manage employee stress levels, and avoid the risk of legal liability in Hong Kong
Pressure in the workplace is one of the major sources of stress for adults, and it has escalated progressively over the last few decades. Employers need to be aware of early warning signs and offer support for stressed staff, or they could potentially be held liable for any foreseeable stress-induced illnesses or injuries that employees experience.
Higher stress levels in the workplace are associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and psychiatric disorders.
It is often an employee’s working environment that is stressful, rather than the work itself. For instance, some employees thrive under pressure, and enjoy performing multiple tasks within a tight timeframe, provided that they perceive that they are in control. The same employees may feel extremely stressed by uninteresting and repetitive work — which may, however, be enjoyable for those who prefer a slower pace.
Keep this in mind when people make sweeping statements about the degree of stress experienced by police officers, investment bankers, and other senior executives. Stress levels can vary widely, even in identical situations.
If an employee behaves out of character on an isolated occasion, this may not be an indicator of an underlying illness, as it may have other causes. For example, the employee may have family issues, or have suffered bereavement, or simply be having a very bad day. However, if such behaviour persists, the employer should be on alert.
Generally, the employer is entitled to take what the employee says at face value, unless there is a good reason to assume otherwise. There is no obligation for employers to ask the employee detailed questions, or investigate whether she or he is hiding any health problems.
If an employer is able to foresee the risk of psychiatric injury as a result of ordinary work-related stress, it should offer counselling or other support services to staff. Such offers of support are relevant when determining the employer’s potential liability towards the employee for any stress-induced illness.
There will inevitably be moments in life when one is faced with work, health or personal issues that can feel extremely challenging to overcome. At such times, extra support and guidance can have great effect. The following are examples of some of the best practices that employers in Hong Kong may consider adopting:
• Provide health facilities. Many employers now have robust health and wellness programmes, employee assistance programmes and initiatives to minimise the impact of stress on employees.
• Offer informative resources. Some employers provide online information or seminars covering a range of stress-related issues, such as workplace conflicts and communication, balancing family and work responsibilities, and depression and anxiety. This support demonstrates a corporate culture that respects and cares for employees.
• Make counselling services accessible, and ensure all employees are aware of this. These support programmes can be made available to employees’ immediate family members, to help resolve issues that might adversely impact on the employees’ job performance and well-being.In addition, employers should encourage all managers to monitor any changes in employees’ behaviour, and look into any claims from employees that they are under stress.
Employers should prioritise their employees’ well-being and understand their legal risks. If an employee fails to bring his or her problems to the company’s attention, it is unlikely any harm suffered will be foreseeable. However, if an issue arises, it is best to address it before it escalates.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Make sure you manage staff stress levels .