By Daniel Hunter

Employers who want to avoid constructive dismissal claims from staff who say they have been off work through stress need to make employees realise that their condition will be investigated at an intensive return to work interview, the employment law specialist Bibby Consulting & Support has said.

Increasingly, employees are quoting stress as a major reason for taking time off, and while of course there will be some genuine cases, which employers need to handle carefully, these are not at the same level that we see the "stress card" being used.

The good news is that there are some simple tools that employers can use to filter out the less-than-genuine cases and therefore keep claims down to a minimum.

Communicating a return to work policy and the importance of the formal return to work interview during a new employee's induction is in itself a deterrent to many employees who toy with the idea of taking an extra sick day here or there.

For stress or anxiety related absence, it is also a good idea that you tell employees that you will involve Occupational Health Professionals in return to work meetings that relate to this type of absence. Again not only will this act as a deterrent to stop employees using the "stress card", but by using a health specialist you can quickly see which cases are genuine and which are not. Occupational Health support does not cost as much as people think, and when you offset that against the cost of not addressing the issues, it pales into an insignificant amount.

"Too many employees are playing the stress card - it's like the new bad back," Bibby Consulting & Support's Managing Director Michael Slade said.

"That's why professionally managed return to work meetings are essential - they help employers get to the heart of issues affecting staff and prevent them escalating to the point of a constructive dismissal claim."

Slade admits that dealing with such matters is often a difficult balancing act between the needs of the business and the needs of the employee but well run return to work meetings can satisfy both. For the employer, though, they provide an opportunity to place a 'benchmark' on file that allows any future activity, including patterns of absence, to be measured against.

Slade concludes: "Employers have a duty of care to protect their employees - but they must also protect themselves. Stress management is a key means of making sure that workers understand that there are strict rules and processes in place. If employees are given clear guidelines and told that their claims of stress are going to be thoroughly investigated - including a health check - they are less likely to use the "stress card" or in the genuine cases, look to a tribunal for financial compensation."

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