Employers can protect themselves

As Britain becomes an increasingly litigious society, more employees in the building services industry are making claims against their employers for stress at work. There is an inexpensive way, however, by which employers can minimise the risk of litigation, at the same time as improving productivity and decreasing staff costs. The surprisingly simple – and affordable – answer is Employee Assistance Programmes.
Workplace stress costs UK businesses an estimated £3.8 billion and 13.4 million lost working days each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE’s Psychosocial Working Conditions survey has identified stress as the largest cause of ill health in the workplace in Europe, with nearly half-a-million people in Britain experiencing work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill.
Staff absenteeism leads to decreased productivity and a reduction in the quality of service provided as the reduced workforce struggles to cope with the increased workload. For smaller companies, the losses can lead to such a significant shortage in manpower that projects are delayed or cancelled – increasing stress levels further.
Even more worrying for employers is the rise in litigation. Working patterns have changed in the past ten years, with a rise in self-employed one-man bands, short-term contracts, and part-time working. Such a climate of uncertainty has contributed to the increase in workplace stress and has led to stress litigation in this country becoming an ever-present reality. Though not yet at US levels, the trend is mirroring US experience, with stressed employees being encouraged to make claims against employers who put them in stressful situations.
Claims against companies that fail to protect their employees from stress-related illnesses are increasing in frequency and size. Employment tribunals have raised the maximum award they can make in cases where bullying and harassment are proven. The maximum amount for non-contested constructive dismissal is now £58,600.
Employees’ claims are strengthened by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires employers to safeguard the physical and mental health, safety and welfare of employees while at work. Equally, the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities, and to take measures to control the identified risk. The HSE is planning to include stress as part of its workplace assessments and it is important that employers are seen to be doing something about the potential threat.
Offering a solution, the courts have recently acknowledged that an organisation with an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), with face-to-face counselling and helplines, has gone a long way in fulfilling its duty of care responsibilities. In addition, an article in the British Medical Journal last year reported that counselling can achieve a reduction in work related stress in more than 50% of employees.
The introduction of an EAP can help employers identify and deal with issues, such as bullying and harassment, and assist employees with financial and legal problems before they escalate and begin to affect performance. A well-run EAP can also provide a confidential and free service for employees, improve productivity and efficiency, and reduce staff turnover and absence rates. Furthermore, an EAP can act as a valuable staff recruitment and retention tool.
Welplan, the UK’s leading supplier of employee benefit packages for the HVACR industry, provides EAPs through BUPA to the building services industry. These include confidential face-to-face counselling, helplines, matrimonial advice, and legal guidance. The confidentiality of Welpan’s EAPS removes a key problem associated with stress, as staff no longer need to admit to their employers that they are finding it difficult to cope in order to obtain help. Staff can seek help without fear of repercussions and the employer can be seen to be providing help for his staff.
At just 50p per month per employee, EAPs are not a huge commitment for the employer, and bring big benefits. The majority of businesses adopting an EAP report improvements in productivity. A lot of research has proven that where EAPs are incorporated into a business, job satisfaction goes up, absenteeism goes down, and productivity improves. In today’s society, with increasing litigation, demanding careers and home lives, and increasing mental health issues, employers can no longer afford to risk being without an EAP.

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