The law and work-stress

Where do you stand in legal terms?

The Law & Work-Related Stress

There is no discrete law dealing with directly work-related stress. However a number of laws and regulations can be used to deal with its causes. This section examines in brief the likely routes that may be open to someone suffering from work-related stress.

Contractual Obligations

It is an implied term of every contract of employment that the employer will fulfill his duty of care to employees. Properly constituted and meaningful consultation should examine custom and practice where employer's changes and impositions occur which are likely to affect conditions of employment and the dignity at work and personal well-being of employees.

Employer Responsibilities

The three principal legal obligations on employers can be summarized as follows:

Legal Case

  • Through relevant Health & Safety and Employment law
  • Common Law duty of care

Moral & Ethical case

  • Not to cause physical and psychological injury
  • Employer's responsibilities for Personal Injury and negligence claims

Business Case

  • Business benefits to be gained from good working environment and practices
  • Impact and costs to nation, employer and employee of long-term sickness absences

Work-Life Balance

There is now a greater emphasis on 'family-friendly' work polices and recognition of the need for a proper life-work balance for all workers at all levels. Those employers who run rough-shod over employees and care little for their well-being are open to challenge.

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

This Act makes intentional harassment in the workplace a criminal offence, punishable by law where the perpetrator in speech or in writing uses abusive or insulting language or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour so that another person feels harassment, alarm or distress.

Discrimination Law

An increased range of law provides protection from discrimination with recourse to Employment Tribunals. Such law now covers Disability, Ethnicity and Race, Religion, Sex, Sexuality and in due course, will include Age.

Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (with Amendment Regulations 2003) and Race Relations Act 1976

Where there is a sexual or racial element to the behaviour causing stress, the employer could be held vicariously liable for the actions of a harassing bullying employee, even where they were not aware of the behaviour.

Disability Discrimination Act 1996

This act confirms rights for people with disabilities. It makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in employment, access to goods, services, transport and education. If there is unlawful discrimination, compensation claims can be taken to the Employment Tribunal. Employees must disclose their disability so that the employer is aware and can then legally required to make 'reasonable adjustments to work'. It should be borne in mind that there is advice and assistance available to both employee and employer

Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978

An employee may complain to an Employment Tribunal of wrongful, unfair or constructive dismissal in circumstances where workplace bullying has led to them leaving their employment. Employment rights apply, dependent on length of contract.

Public Order Act 1986

The act defines racial hatred as: "that hatred against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins". In cases where racist actions and words have caused stress, then the act's provisions may apply, in addition to the discrimination laws below.

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Created from the anti-stalking Bill, this legislation makes personal harassment illegal. Instances of such behaviour should be reported to the Police and possibly to employers where the acts are work-related.

Human Rights Act 1998

The various articles in this legislation provide for a range of freedoms for individual people. However, care must be exercised in assuming that this law will apply to stress and bullying situation. It is not automatic that rights have been breached or that this relates to stress claims.

Health & Safety Laws

UKSafety law covers a wide area of employer duty of care to employees. Although direct application to stress-related illnesses may be difficult, the duty of care remains and employers can be held culpable. Improvement and Prohibition Notices can be issued where employers fail to have an acceptable Safety Policy or fail to carry out risk assessments. Recently introduced HSEStress Management Standards, whilst voluntary, show what employers are now required to do to protect workers from stress.

Health, Safety and Welfare at Work etc. Act 1974

Section 2 of the Act places a duty upon all employers to ensure the health (including mental health), safety and welfare of all employees and to create safe and healthy working systems. RIDDOR 95 - (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases or Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). Under RIDDOR, employees have the right to report all incidents of a danger to them, including bullying and harassment. Employers are legally obliged to have reporting procedures in place. Industrial Injury form BI100a available from Department of Work & Pensions should also be completed

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (including the Approved Code of Practice)

This regulation deals with the requirement on employers to assess all risks to the health and safety of employees and to provide them with comprehensive and relevant information on those risks and actions to mitigate those risks. It also requires the employer to take into account individuals' capabilities when assessing the risks. Failure to produce and/or act upon assessments may be evidence of negligence.

Employment Relations Act 1999

By inserting a new section (57 A) into the Employment Rights Act 1996 'reasonable' time off is allowed for dependants and for parental leave. This is part of the 'Family Friendly' policies of the Labour Government. It also provides (amongst other things) for employers to recognise employees' rights to representation at disciplinary hearings which must also be convened at a mutually agreeable time to all parties expected to participate.

Working Time Regulations

Define 'working time' and set maximum limits, although there is an opt out arrangement. Not all workers are covered by these regulations.

Disputes Resolution Regulations (2004)

This newly introduced regulation provides for a statutory procedure to enable all workers to pursue grievances and local disputes. Employers will be obliged to ensure that specific steps are taken and where they are not, then action in the Employment Tribunal may follow. Any cases taken for unfair dismissal, constructive dismissal and wrongful dismissal where this happens will be proceeded by local dispute resolution procedures.

Work-Life Balance

There is now a greater emphasis on 'family-friendly' work polices, and recognition of the need for a proper life-work balance, for all workers at all levels. Those employers who run rough-shod over employees and care little for their well-being are open to challenge.


Employees who criticize employers' unsafe practices at work have some protections.

Dignity at Work Bill

Since the mid-1990s attempts have been made to create new laws ensuring Dignity at Work. Such legislation would provide for all employees to be treated with respect and dignity by all work colleagues, including managers. At present there is no indication of a date for the enactment of such law.

Negligence and Liability

Employers must provide a safe place of work, a safe system of work, safe plant and appliances and safe and competent fellow workers. If an employer fails to take reasonable care to protect an employee from a foreseeable injury by failing to provide any of the above, he or she could be found to have breached the 'duty of care'. Redress would either be via Civil or Criminal law.

Personal Injury claims (Stress)

Such claims in the courts, progressed either through a Trades Union or a Solicitor will need to be able to demonstrate clear and unequivocal evidence that a worker's psychological well-being has been damaged by working practices. The employee will need to have a clinically diagnosed condition and be able to demonstrate that they have raised the causes of their condition with the employer, and that he has singularly failed to act under his duty of care.

Next: Why Tackle Work-Related Stress?