By Claire West

Employers have been advised it is in their interests to prevent and manage stress at work, as a new guide is launched highlighting the potential legal risks they face if they ignore their responsibilities in this area.

The guide, produced by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), with support from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Acas and the cross-government Health, Work and Wellbeing programme, spells out employers’ legal obligations in identifying and preventing stress at work.

The guide, Work-related stress: what the law says, which was written by John Hamilton, head of safety, health and wellbeing at Leeds Metropolitan University, also highlights recent cases where employers have faced significant compensation payouts for failing to identify and prevent stress adequately. In addition it provides advice on how employers can tackle stress through good people management.

Dame Carol Black, national director for health and work, commented: “It is in employers’ interests to manage stress at work proactively and not just assume all staff are coping, particularly in a tough economic environment where many employees are under pressure to do more with less.”

The CIPD’s quarterly July 2010 Employee Outlook survey showed almost half (49%) of staff have noticed an increase in stress at work as a result of the economic downturn.

Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser, CIPD, said stress at work can have a significant impact on business performance. “Employers that fail to manage stress effectively risk losing key staff through high absence levels and employee turnover. They will also suffer from low staff morale and risk higher levels of conflict and accidents in the workplace. In addition, they potentially face costly personal injury claims, as well as damage to their employer brand.”

Peter Brown, head of work environment, radiation and gas policy, HSE, added: “A certain level of pressure at work helps to motivate people and can boost energy and productivity levels. But, when the pressure individuals are under exceeds their ability to cope, it becomes a negative rather than a positive force.

“This guide summarises the legislation relevant to work-related stress and provides some tips for employers on the steps they can take to manage stress and support employee wellbeing.”

Jane Bird, director of operational policy and performance, Acas, said: “Managing employee health and wellbeing is important for maintaining a productive workforce. Effective line management is key to preventing stress where possible and managing it when it does occur. If managers create and maintain effective, two-way communication, they are more likely to notice when someone is struggling and intervene.”