The following article does NOT constitute legal advice and should not be used as such. It is for educational purposes only. Readers should retain legal counsel to obtain definitive answers.
When we think of the holidays, what word comes to mind? For many, it may be “stress.” This time of year places additional duties and expectations on many employees that are not present during other times of the year. So, the holidays provide a perfect opportunity to discuss stress in the workplace and how workplace wellness professionals can use the law to reduce that stress.
Why Care About Stress?
According to a recent study by Aon Hewitt, in 2017, 54% of consumers reported high stress levels, up 5% since 2016. The same study found the top five stressors as:
- Financial situation (50%)
- Work changes (41%)
- Work schedule (40%)
- Work relationships (36%)
- Control over how I do my work (33%)
According to the World Health Organization, workers who are stressed are more likely to be unhealthy, poorly motivated, less productive, less safe at work, and at risk for depression and anxiety disorders. Stressed workers undermine an organization’s success.
Despite the prevalence of stress in workers, employer wellness programs generally do not prioritize stress reduction. Indeed, according to the Aon Hewitt study, 85% of employees surveyed want help in managing stress, but only 42% of employers surveyed were addressing stress management and resiliency training. Thus, much more can and should be done to minimize employee stress.
How can the Law Minimize Stress in the Workplace?
Workplace wellness professionals can use several different laws to create work environments that reduce employee stress. Workplace wellness professionals working with leaders who need convincing that reducing stress is good for business can use the following laws to support a change in corporate culture and avoid unnecessary lawsuits based on employee stress.
Worker’s Compensation Laws
Although most worker’s compensation cases involve physical injury, there are some cases where the employee died or was injured because of a stressful work environment. These cases involve both professional employees and employees who perform general labor. For example, in Harper v. Banks, Finley, White & Co. of Mississippi, Mr. Harper, a managing partner of an accounting firm, died from a severe stroke. The worker’s compensation commission found that various aspects of his work, such as the compensation structure, long hours, profit-sharing disputes and new computer software problems contributed to a work environment with above-average stress. Similarly, in Dietz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Robert Dietz worked as a field maintenance worker for 20 years. He put in long hours performing hard, physical labor, such as jackhammering. Even though Mr. Dietz smoked a pack of cigarettes each day and had high cholesterol, the workers’ compensation judge found that Mr. Dietz’s physical exertion over a 14-hour workday caused his heart attack. These cases teach us that job design, work environment and culture matter. Failure to account for these issues not only cause employee stress, but injury and death, which can lead to workers’ compensation claims and payouts.
Workplace wellness professionals can use law to support the need for more comprehensive wellness programs that include reducing stress and its various causes.
Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)
The purpose of OSHA is to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women. Employers looking to use OSHA requirements as a reason to reduce workplace stress might look to OSHA’s “General Duty Clause.” This clause requires each employer to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
You might ask how does this clause, which aims to address workplace violence, relate to common employee stressors, such as financial stress or work hours? The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the agency that enforces compliance with OSHA law, provides guidance on how to prevent workplace violence. This guidance can also be used by workplace wellness professionals to create a work environment that also minimizes stress. Some of this guidance includes getting commitment from management, asking employees to participate in decision-making and conducting a worksite analysis. Workplace wellness professionals can cite to this guidance as support for looking more holistically at an employee’s work environment. Using the guidance will not only help the organization comply with OSHA, but it could also help create a more stress-free work environment.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals who have, had or are perceived to have a disability as to terms, conditions and privileges of employment. Workplace stress can cause disabilities which are protected by the ADA. Employers must offer reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations can include modifying an employee’s work environment.
Because the ADA protects against discrimination even those employees who are perceived to have a disability, an employer may use the ADA to proactively design a work environment that reduces stress. For example, workplace wellness professionals could use the ADA reasonable accommodation requirement to evaluate whether an employee’s work environment causes undue stress. Some questions wellness professionals might ask is whether changes to room lighting, noise or temperature are needed, or whether flex time could be adopted. These changes could reduce employee stress, which in turn could reduce the likelihood of employee disability and ADA discrimination claims.
Other Civil Rights Laws
There are a number of other laws that prohibit discrimination in employment based on “protected classes.” For example, Title VII prohibits employer discrimination based on an employee’s gender, race, ethnicity, national origin or religion. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits discrimination against employees age 40 or older. The ADA, mentioned above, prohibits discrimination based on disability.
One form of discrimination may be workplace bullying or harassment, which, if based on a protected class, is illegal under these civil rights laws. According to a 2010 survey, 35% of workers have been bullied in the workplace. That same survey found that 62% of bullies are men, and 58% of bullying targets are women. Thus, the potential for illegal sexual harassment is especially prevalent. Workplace bullying or harassment can cause employee stress.
To help employers avoid liability from these civil rights laws, workplace wellness professionals should include workplace bullying and harassment training as part of the organization’s wellness program. This training should give the message of a “no-tolerance” culture regarding workplace bullying and harassment. Incorporating workplace bullying and harassment prevention into a wellness program should not only prevent bullying and harassment, but also reduce the risk of civil rights claims (which can be very costly to the employer even if the employer ultimately prevails) and the risk of another common stress-related hazard.
Workplace wellness professionals can use law to support the need for more comprehensive wellness programs that include reducing stress and its various causes. Surveys show that employees desire employer efforts to help them manage stress, and employers can reduce stress-related costs by paying attention to an employee’s work environment and expectations. When it comes to helping guide employers on ways to reduce stress, laws such as workers’ compensation, OSHA, ADA and other civil rights laws can be extremely useful tools.
Barbara J. Zabawa
President of the Center for Health and Wellness Law, LLC