Communication is the key to managing absence and stress in the workplace

Posted: 06/06/2012

Carey Olsen Seminar on Absence and Stress
Carey Olsen has advised Guernsey human resource (HR) practitioners that return to work interviews were the single most effective tool for managing absence and stress in the workplace.

More than 60 delegates attended the seminar at St James on Tuesday 29 May. Carey Olsen litigation partner Mark Dunster chaired the panel with speakers advocate Elaine Gray and associate, Rachel Richardson.

Advocate Dunster said: “Over the years a number of surveys have been published by UK-based mental health groups with the aim of reducing the stigma attached to stress. It can be difficult and expensive for organisations to manage this type of absence and that is why it is important to have the knowledge, tools and policies in place to deal with it effectively.

Advocate Gray highlighted that, although UK research suggests that absence rates have been cut by more than a quarter since the 1980s, there is an increasing level of concern amongst employers regarding stress-related absence.

“We are seeing a marked increase in stress-related claims being brought before the Guernsey Employment Tribunal. The financial cost to a business of getting help from external providers and engaging temporary staff to cover absences can be huge. Stress absences can also reduce morale and cooperation among team members of the employee who is off ill, which can affect overall productivity and client service.”

She advised delegates that organisations should implement a clear sickness absence policy as ‘best practice' for managing stress-related absences amongst employees.

“Guernsey's health and safety regime requires employers to provide information, instruction, training and supervision to all employees and continuously monitor and review the workplace environment to ensure it is safe for staff and without risk to heath.”

Advocate Gray highlighted that there is relatively limited health and safety legislation in Guernsey, but that the law we do have is flexible and has the potential to apply to a large number of different circumstances. When assessing what employers have done, the Guernsey courts are also likely to look at the best practice which is set out in both EU and UK legislation.

“The courts will take the view that information about what was ‘best practice' was available to the employer and as such they could be held liable for claims if systems were not put in place to match that ‘best practice',” she added.

Ms Richardson spoke on the options that are available for employers if absence is lengthy and becomes unworkable for the organisation. She emphasised that fair dismissal procedures should be put in place and measured on conduct, capability and other substantial factors that are unique to the company.

Ms Richardson advised that employers should develop formal attendance policies and targets, (including appropriate limits on sick pay and employee wellbeing policies), provide employees with access to occupational health services, and challenge and change unhealthy workplace cultures that foster higher rates of absence.

Ms Richardson also advised that line managers should be trained to conduct return to work interviews with staff, as this has been proven the most effective method for providing individuals and managers with a private forum for understanding why the employee was absent, and if they can continue their role effectively.

“The people you don't expect to be suffering from stress are the sometimes the most vulnerable,” she added.

“By adopting these guidelines organisations should not only reduce liability and culpability in the event that claims are brought, but also hopefully prevent claims being brought in the first place,” said Ms Richardson.

Pictured (left to right) Advocate Mark Dunster, Advocate Elaine Gray and Rachel Richardson

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