You look around your enterprise and smile. It’s 8pm and all of your employees are still hard at work, having been slaving away since 8am with just the shortest of lunch breaks to refuel. They’re a dedicated bunch. It can only be down to your rule.

You happen to chat to someone else in the same line of work. He seems happy too. Business is flourishing. He looks around the office and everyone seems happy.

“Happiness! They have time be happy? We’re all far too hard at work!” You say.

“On the contrary,” he replies. “I suspect their happiness feeds into our productivity. I’m surprised your employees aren’t too stressed, the way you work them! They need rest and exercise too, you know?”

“Stress? Everyone’s stressed! It makes us work better!”

The next week two of your employees go off with stress. Your productivity plummets. And then one of those employees brings a disability discrimination claim in an employment tribunal and a personal injury claim in the High Court. He says he told you he was stressed. Apparently he told you his therapist recommended regular exercise, but with the way you’re working him, he doesn’t get a chance.

As has been said many times, stress and lack of physical activity have a very negative impact on work. The precise figures may be questioned, but it seems pretty clear that a little exercise is good for the mind – there is also evidence that exercise when young delays the ageing of the brain. And while a little stress channelled in the right way may be good for you, health professionals, courts and employment tribunals have accepted that stress can be a debilitating impairment that counts as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

The law, at its best, helps us humans to work in a manner that is productive in the long term. Some managers will naturally favour a stress free work place. Others will be persuaded by the scientific data that a stress-free work environment is better for productivity. For others, the law will be the motivator. Principally:

  • Health and safety law lays down minimum requirements, the flouting of which could result in criminal prosecution. For example, you have a duty to identify significant and foreseeable risks to workers’ health.
  • Employers also have a legal duty to prevent foreseeable harm to workers’ health. If harm then happens, the worker may have a claim against their employer for significant damages, typically offsetting any temporary gain in productivity from overwork.
  • If an employee has a disability, the employer has a duty to consider reasonable adjustments to that employee’s working conditions and must take care to ensure that he or she doesn’t suffer any working disadvantage caused by the disability. (A disability is legally defined as a long term impairment that has an effect on an employee’s ability to carry out the usual daily activities covered by their job description. The law interprets this definition widely and includes stress, which it treats as a mental impairment/disability.)
  • All workers now have the right to request flexible working. Employers must consider a flexi working request on certain business grounds (although they’re not obliged to say yes to it). The philosophy underpinning this legal development is also designed to facilitate a happier, more fulfilled and more productive workplace.

The boss portrayed above may be an extreme example. But in varying degrees we probably all have such qualities – it is hard to see the long-term gain when short term profits are so high. And your employees may not always feel they can be up-front with you about any concerns they have until it’s very late in the day and they’re suffering … or they’re about to walk out the door to one of your rivals. 

Keep an eye on your workforce so that you can quickly spot any warning signs about the well-being of any member of staff. It’s an old saying, but still a very wise one: ‘a stitch in time, saves nine’. Taking the right steps now, can save a lot of grief, cost and loss to business productivity later on.