Stress and Wellness in the workplace -employers responsibilities ?

At last weeks  seminar in Openminds Centre, Dun Laoghaire, I presented an introductory  workshop for HR professionals and employers on the  theme   mental health and wellness in the workplace. Often wellness is seen as an extra, an added luxury, something that might be accessed for employees if there is any money left in the budget. Its generally not considered to be  a core aspect of training in workplaces. However, in my view,  it really can no longer  be seen as a luxury and whilst managing stress, promoting wellness and mindfulness have become cliched, we must not dismiss them but perhaps consider that employee wellness is the key to a successful and engaged work force. If our staff are managing their stress, keeping a good work/life balance they will be more engaged, happier at their work and less likely to be taking sick leave.

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I also described how some stress can be helpful to get us motivated but that factors such as the level of stress and how long we are exposed to it are important in terms of its effect. The example of holding  glass in our hands was used. This is in itself is easy, but if we are asked to hold the full glass for an extended period of time, then we start to feel the effects! This is what can happen if we experience stress and not get the support we need, we get tired.  I  also referenced a recent TED talk by Kelly Mc Gonigal on “Making Stress your friend”. Mc Gonigal referred to a recent study which highlighted  that how we feel about our stress is important and that if we have a positive view, its less likely to have a negative impact on our health.  This concurs with the theory that  how we believe something to be impacts the actual experience.

The area of  employer liability for “psychological injuries” is an increasingly important area and Marguerite Bolger SC presented a paper at a recent legal conference in Dublin entitled “Stress induced psychological injuries in the workplace:when is the employer liable?”  In the paper, she notes  that stress at work, bullying and harassment  claims are a busy area of litigation and that  claims have increased dramatically over the past ten years. She said many of these cases have been unsuccessful as the court have rejected the facts and there hasn’t been sufficient evidence. However, she warned that liability can and will arise in a bullying at work situation if an employer fails to deal with a situation of which they have been made aware.  She advises that court is not the appropriate forum to have  sensitive issues of bullying or psychological injury addressed and  that legislation is not sufficiently developed at this point.  One implication of this is that if an employer addresses mental health and wellness in the workplace and provides support for staff this will assist staff in getting the support they need and there will be less need for litigation and in any event the employer will have demonstrated that they have  made efforts to support the employees.