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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Workplace stress - Part 7

Is the relationship between employer and employee in itself necessarily stressful?

If one takes the view that the relationship between capital and labour is necessarily and inevitably exploitative, then workplace stress is an unavoidable effect of being employed. Such a view would suggest that efforts to reduce workplace stress are doomed to failure in a capitalist society. This need not mean that such efforts are not worthwhile. Almost all recent research indicates that levels of workplace stress are rising alarmingly. The two key causes of this are the increasing demands of information technology and the globalisation of employing companies. The role of the lawyer in this situation should be awareness of the current state of the law and to advise clients on how it may be applied. Lawyers cannot prevent workplace stress but they can help those who suffer from its worst effects to obtain financial compensation. Such efforts may indirectly encourage employers to take steps to deal with the problem before it reaches courts or tribunals.


The view referred to above fails to take into account stress levels experienced by the self-employed and those who work in family businesses or co-operatives. For example, work-related stress levels are notoriously high among GPs and lawyers. This would seem to suggest that the causes of workplace stress are not exclusively to be found in the employer-employee relationship.

It may be significant to point out that self-employed professionals do not as a rule experience conditions involving bullying, abuse or harassment. The types of stress experienced by lawyers and doctors will normally be different from those suffered by industrial workers. But the medical symptoms of work-related stress would appear to be similar, whatever the cause.

LawCare Ltd, a registered charity providing health support and advice for lawyers, made the following comments in this context:

  • The legal profession is particularly vulnerable to the behaviour of other people.

  • Stress results from responses to other people’s behaviour.

  • Stress-inducing factors include:

  • Complete reform of the rules of court

  • Downward pressure on fees

  • Increased expectations of speedy service.

  • Death from cirrhosis of the liver is twice as prevalent among lawyers than it is among the general population.

  • Lawyers suffer from depressive illness at three to four times the general rate.

  • In the USA, 60 per cent of disciplinary complaints against lawyers relate to stress, depression and alcohol abuse.

Causes of stress among self-employed professionals

  • Responsibility

  • Long working hours

  • Need to keep up to date with professional information

  • Demands of information technology

  • Bullying by senior members of professions

  • Fear of litigation against themselves.

Causes of stress among self-employed manual workers

All the above, plus:

  • Economic uncertainty

  • Conflict with customers.

Stress, anxiety and depression: latest figures

The latest HSE official statistics report includes the following:

  • 44 per cent of new and long-standing cases of work-related illness in 2017/2018 resulted from stress, anxiety or depression.

  • 57 per cent (15.4 million) of working days lost because of illness in 2017/18 were due to stress, anxiety or depression.

  • During 2017/18 there were 595,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

  • 239,000 workers suffered from a new case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18.

  • Jobs with higher than average rates of stress, depression or anxiety include those in education, human health and social work, public administration and defence.

  • When questioned about the causes of stress, anxiety and depression: ** 44 per cent of workers mentioned their workload

  • ** 13 per cent cited violence, threats or bullying

  • ** 14 per cent mentioned lack of support at work

  • ** 8 per cent cited work changes

  • ** 21 per cent raised other reasons.

The HSE has repeated its statement that employers have a legal duty to protect workers from workplace stress by carrying out a risk assessment and acting on its results.


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