How HR mediation can help to beat workplace related stress

As the problem of workplace-related stress (WRS) and long-term absence continues to increase, HR mediation services are proving invaluable in dealing with the often difficult discussions between employers, employees and insurers, helping all parties come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Through the experience of mediation, it is becoming clear that requiring a full and complete recovery before return to work is not necessarily in the employee’s best interests. This is because protracted absence can lead to total disengagement – from work and life in general.

What’s more, in some cases the mutually negotiated and agreed termination of an employment contract can be the best solution for all and needn’t involve costly and protracted legal proceedings.

WRS is on the increase

Terry Hallam, senior consultant at Form Health (UK), says the case emphasis of his company has moved from chronic illnesses or accidents to work related stress over recent years. Hallam explains: “We now estimate that over 70% of cases that are referred to us fall into the category of WRS.

“With the difficulty of obtaining clear cut medical evidence to support WRS claims and the cynicism that can follow from this, together with the complexities of employment law, it is perhaps no surprise that employers often take a more stand-off position and seem ready to move the perceived responsibility for handling the ensuing absences to the insurer.

“The result is the employer and employee become increasingly polarised which only makes the WRS worse. We mediate to unfreeze these situations,” he says.

Medicalising the non-medical

In 2015/16, stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health, according to the Health & Safety Executive’s latest Labour Force Survey.

Whilst, in many cases, the employee concerned is genuinely suffering from a mental health problem, experts claim that in a growing number of incidences the symptoms of anxiety experienced are a reaction to work-related issues, such as disputes with managers, bullying, work overload or being ill-equipped for the role or changes in the workplace.

Dr Maurice Lipsedge, a consultant psychiatrist and psychiatric adviser, first wrote about the “medicalisation of tension and conflict in the workplace” in 2010 in a paper entitled Stress and sickness absence: a psychosocial perspective, which appears in the 10th edition of the widely-used textbook Hunter’s Disease of Occupations.

In this, he cites evidence to show that in some cases “sickness absence might be, in part, a coping strategy ‘to escape from problematic workplaces’ and that sickness absence might mobilise therapeutic resources”. In other words, an overwhelmed employee might well resort to a medical route to gain an escape from a seemingly intolerable workplace situation.

Familiar cycle

Many a HR manager will be all too familiar with the following series of events:

  • An employee takes time off sick, visits their GP who identifies a certain level of stress – often via a standard set of 9 tick-box questions, otherwise known as the PQ9 form – and signs off the employee for a period of time.
  • The employer informs their Group Income Protection (GIP) provider and early intervention and rehabilitation options are explored.
  • If the employer has access to Occupational Health (OH) expertise, the employee will be referred to OH. Although beneficial to the employee, this can result in a situation where HR – and therefore the commercial aspect - is effectively removed from the equation.
  • Throughout this time, the employee is becoming increasingly disengaged from their workplace – in both a physical and psychological sense.
  • If the absence continues, the employee and employer end up becoming increasingly polarised, and a somewhat open-ended GIP claim could be initiated. This not only has an impact on premiums, but also leaves the employer with the problem of what to do with the employee within Duty of Care constraints. 

Whilst GIP early interventions – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - can prove incredibly effective in cases of genuine mental health problems, where non-medical psychological problems due to unresolved workplace problems are concerned it simply won’t be effective.

Dr Lipsedge comments: “CBT is often used to good effect by teaching the individual to restructure their thoughts. However, where issues such as bullying or excessive workload are causing the problems CBT is simply a palliative gesture that isn’t doing anything constructive to help with the very real issues in the workplace.”

In such instances, Dr Lipsedge recommends a “round table conference” where the employee, their representative or friend, HR, their line manager and, crucially, their line manager’s manager can meet to resolve the workplace tensions.

It is here that the HR mediation expert can help and is a service included free of charge in certain GIP policies.

Hallam explains: “Mediation allows employers to have a say in situations that are often out of their control because of employment law and data protection constraints. "

Our aim is to reach a resolution that keeps everyone happy. This might involve the employee going back to their old job with some adjustments in place, but it might also involve striking a deal and helping the employee move on elsewhere with help from career counselling."

“WRS is a problem that isn’t going to go away and it's important to educate clients in the shift of service provision, effectively moving the industry away from the old adage, namely: if you can’t prove it, we’re not paying.”

Is work the real issue? What to watch out for 

  • Things that may have impacted on the employee’s job role or responsibilities, such as changes in work methods, a mismatch between targets and resources, business restructuring and relocations.
  • Demoralisation, lateness, irritability, apathy occurring prior to the sickness absence.
  • The level of access afforded to the employee by their line manager and, parallel to this, the level of access between the line manager and their own manager.
  • Whether reductions in work performance over time, or repeated short-term absences, have triggered negative appraisal reviews or other management responses/criticisms
  • Home and family related stressors to which the employee might be subject, such as cost of living pressures and carer responsibilities. In any assessment, non-work factors also need to be taken into account.

Simon Thomas is head of employee benefits and life at Generali.