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Organisations face various 'problem areas' as they attempt to deal with stress at work, Jill Earnshaw, lecturer in ...
Organisations face various 'problem areas' as they attempt to deal with stress at work, Jill Earnshaw, lecturer in employment law at UMIST, told delegates at the Institute of Personnel and Development's (IPD's) national conference in Harrogate today.

'One key problem area for personnel professionals is having to make difficult decisions about the stage at which they dismiss those who cannot cope and how people deal with inherently stressful jobs,' she explains.

Recent cases have shown the consequences for employers if they neglect the mental welfare of staff. Courts ruled in favour of John Walker, the social worker who sued Northumberland CC for failing to protect him from psychological harm, and four police officers involved in the Hillsborough disaster, who were awarded compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.

'The employer's duty is to take reasonable steps to protect the employee from foreseeable risks of harm,' Earnshaw says. However, she argues, employers are unsure about how to deal with specific problems, such as how to relate to those off work with stress-related illnesses.

'Employers have a real problem dealing with people who are off sick. On one hand, if they send personnel to visit, they could be accused of harassment and making the stress worse. But on the other hand, if they don't keep that person in the picture and then terminate their employment, they could also be in a mess,' Earnshaw warns.

As a result, she says: 'Employers are being very cautious: I've heard of instances where personnel have been instructed: 'Do not dismiss anybody who's been off work with stress'.'

Earnshaw argues that the way employers approach the recruitment of those who have previously suffered from stress is another important area. Recruiters must make the right decisions or potentially face legal action, under the provisions of the new Disability Discrimination Act.

'From the research I've seen, it doesn't look as if organisations will immediately say, 'If someone has had a stress problem in the past, we won't take them on', but they would try to find out what had caused the problem in the past.'

Earnshaw suggests a variety of preventative measures desired to diminish the risk of stress-related illness among, employees. These include:

restructuring jobs, effective policies against bullying and harassment, training for line managers, matching people to jobs, reviewing security arrangements and examining the corporate culture.

She cites anecdotal evidence which suggests that organisations are now beginning to formulate policies designed to tackle the problem.

'There's a shift away from an attude which says: 'It's your problem but we'll help you with a bit of counselling', and towards one which says: 'It's our problem as an organisations and we should do something to tackle it before it lands on your shoulders'.'

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