PJ writes: I have a member of staff who has been off work for almost four months citing stress as the official reason from the doctor. Is there any possibility of getting this employee back to work or can I dismiss him? Employers have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff, writes Peter Done, managing director of Peninsula. Stress can be caused by an overload of work, bad workplace relationships, a lack of support, and a negative working environment. Stress may also be caused by outside factors. However, where this affects an employee and his work, employers are still obliged to address it.
As the worker’s doctor has cited stress as the reason for the absence, the employer now has a duty to take steps to manage the problem. Stress can constitute a disability under equality legislation and the employee will be protected from discrimination because of this, so a dismissal is likely to be discriminatory and unfair. Before a dismissal can take place, employers need to show that they have taken all reasonable steps to help an employee return to work. This could involve them showing that they have considered adjustments to the job, they have been communicating with the employee during this process, they have offered occupational health and counselling services and they have considered a phased return but the employee is still unable to come back. Medical evidence is likely to be important at this stage to show whether there are any adjustments that could reasonably be made or whether there is any possibility the employee will return. For a dismissal, the employer still needs to be able to prove a fair reason, such as conduct or capability, and a fair procedure needs to be followed. This is extremely important in your circumstances because you are already aware of the stress and the procedure has to take account of it and be adapted, or diluted, to be fair and reasonable. Again, this will be a correct forum in which to ask the employee if there are any adjustments that will encourage his return to work and, if any are identified, these can be implemented within the stages of a disciplinary process. As always if you need further clarification on this issue then contact the Peninsula Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.