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Employer Obligations and the Case for Thinking Work

When we think about health and safety in the workplace, the natural inclination is to frame it in terms of physical well-being.

When employers carry out risk assessments, they are largely focusing on things that could cause injury or accidents – making sure machinery and equipment is in a safe state of repair, that fixtures and fittings in company premises are not about to fall on top of someone and so on.

When companies draw up health and safety policies, they again mainly focus on the prevention of physical harm – providing correct training in the use of equipment and manual handling, putting together fit for purpose emergency evacuation procedures.

As a result of this, different occupations are categorised on a scale from high risk to low risk. If you work in an industry such as waste management, construction or warehousing and logistics, for example, your occupation is considered high risk. The combination of physical labour, heavy machinery and moving vehicles does indeed tend to lead to an above average accident rate.

If, on the other hand, you do what might be considered ‘thinking work’ – law, academia, various job titles that have the word ‘strategist’ in them – then the fact that the only equipment you may ever need to use amounts to a laptop and a smartphone puts your occupation in the low risk category. Your employer may be obliged to check that your office chair and your laptop screen are adjusted correctly and that is about it.

But does the well-being of employees – and therefore the obligations of employers – really boil down to the prevention of physical accidents and injury alone?

Obligations around stress

In our last article, we raised the example of Japan, where a culture of chronic overwork is tragically driving people to suicide and, in some cases, leading to genuine accidents when exhausted commuters pass out behind the wheel. Japan’s business and legal community is waking up to the fact that employers do have a responsibility for the mental and emotional well-being of their employees, as well as the physical.

In fact, this is something enshrined in UK health and safety law, or at least its interpretation. Although the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) demonstrates its bias by consistently using phrases such as ‘prevention of injury and harm’ in its literature on employer responsibilities, case law has come to include issues such as stress under the definition of harm.

Stress is not a risk that is confined to the sort of machinery used in the workplace or how much physical exertion is involved in performing your duties. Even the most sedentary of professions are vulnerable to stress. Excessive hours, too much pressure from targets, an unsupportive, bullying work culture – all can lead to mental damage that is just as debilitating as physical injury.

This is recognised in other areas of employment law. The Working Time Directive, for example, is primarily intended not to prevent accidents from people falling asleep on the job, but to preserve mental and emotional well-being by ensuring workers get appropriate amounts of rest.

So when we are considering employer’s obligations on health and safety, it would be more helpful to extend our thinking beyond the obvious preoccupations with physical risks. Harm does not begin and end with injury and accidents. Even in supposedly ‘low risk’ occupations where mental rather than physical work predominates, issues of stress and anxiety can cause immense damage to personal well-being.

Employers have just as much of an obligation to protect against these risks as they do to prevent injury and accidents. Overwork, punitive targets, negative work cultures are all things that employers can control, so there is no excuse when workers do end up signed off with stress.