Bullying at work and stress at work

I once came across “bullying at work” on a sick note for a member of staff at a GP Practice. I was tempted to think one GP was making life deliberately difficult for a rival.

I had two issues with the diagnosis. Firstly it was not a diagnosis or a disease but a description of something that the patient may be experiencing. Secondly how did the doctor know that the patient was being bullied at work? Indeed the patient could be bullying her boss (it happens). The doctor signing the note is not present in the work environment and can rely only on the patient’s testimony for evidence.

More common is “work-related stress” about which I also have the same reservations.

Of course a patient may be suffering from panic attacks, debility or even a mental breakdown, all of which we assume are within the doctor’s capacity to diagnose. But attributing the cause to bullying or stress at work is making a judgement on the patient’s work place that, I submit, is not for the doctor to make. Indeed in reaching that judgement the doctor is again relying on testimony from his or her patient.

However, as employers, like it or not, we cannot ignore the statement because it may be true.

What to do?

We recommend a discussion with the employee, but it must be initiated in a non-threatening way. If the employee is not at work then a letter may be better than a phone call. Email would be suitable only if the employee regularly uses their email in communication with you.

If the employee does not respond?

Ultimately it is for the employer’s responsibility to keep in touch with the employee rather than vice-versa. Therefore attempts should be continued but not allowed so frequently as to become likely to harass the employee. That said I remember an Employment Judge opining that you can be “hung if you do” (keep in touch with the employee) and “hung if you don’t”!

Conducting the discussion

The person chosen to lead the discussion must not be the source of the bullying or the stress.

An HR professional (internal or external) may be the most suitable choice. Without using the word investigation (because of its negative connotations) you need to seek to find the source of the stress. If it is bullying then you should follow the appropriate policy (which is in your employee handbook, we trust). Often bullying behaviour arises from a poorly trained manager or supervisor who themselves is under stress.

Address the stress

“Stress” can arise from a variety of causes and in particular:

  • Frequent change in role or responsibility
  • Work overload
  • Poor training of the employee
  • Expectations beyond the employee’s capability
  • Poor training of their manager
  • Anxiety over their responsibilities
  • Home related stress spilling into the workplace

Each presents an opportunity that can be addressed in order to reduce the stress.

We are often annoyed when an employee is off work because we want them at work. Employer Solutions has the expertise and experience to assist and help you get your employee back to work and working effectively.

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice.

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