Even though we might regard our home and work lives as having returned to normality after Covid-19, barely a week goes by without further evidence illustrating how we are still in exceptional times.
If we turn the clock back seven years to the period just before Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), the changes which we have since seen in employment are substantial.
Brexit has reshaped the ability and availability of individuals from across the continent to contribute to the UK's labour market, while there has also been a mass adoption of more flexible working patterns as a result of the pandemic.
An indication of what that means for employers came in February with the publication of data from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) showing that firms were grappling with more severe challenges in recruitment than ever before https://www.britishchambers.org.uk/media/get/BCC%20QES%20infosheet%20Q4%202022.pdf.
Such difficulties present additional consequences, as the latest "business insights" bulletin issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) makes clear https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/business/businessservices/bulletins/businessinsightsandimpactontheukeconomy/4may2023.
It explains that almost a third of businesses with 10 or more employees experienced staff shortages in late April - a rise on the proportion recorded only the month before.
What I found even more illuminating, however, was that more than half of the companies affected reported that existing employees were working longer hours as a result.
The situation highlights the tensions which confront bosses at the moment, both in resolving immediate shortages to ensure that their businesses remain productive and avoiding prospective problems.
I say that because having people work longer hours can increase the incidence of stress.
Stress is so great an issue that the conciliation service ACAS has produced a factsheet for firms wanting to ensure that they manage its impacts effectively.
The document describes stress as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them" https://www.acas.org.uk/managing-work-related stress#:~:text=Causes%20of%20stress%20at%20work&text=poor%20working%20conditions,these%20are%20not%20managed%20well.
It is something which can generate very real and very dangerous physical and mental reactions. Some of those noted by ACAS include depression, heart disease and even digestive conditions.
Furthermore, it can mean staff being unable to fulfill their duties, either in full or at all. Whilst that can obviously compound the very difficulties in recruitment which result in people working longer than normal, it has more than a practical implication.
As the ACAS' guidance confirms, whilst stress in itself might not always be classed as a medical condition, a person will be protected from discrimination if their stress results in them having as disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.
According to the Act, companies have a responsibility to make "reasonable adjustments" to enable staff who are disabled to continue to carry out their duties https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/20.
The also have an obligation not to treat staff unfavourably as a result of anything which might arise as a result of a disability.
A failure to do so could give rise to a legal claim.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice demonstrate that such action is becoming more frequent https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/tribunal-statistics-quarterly-october-to-december-2022.
Although the data covers the period including the pandemic, it shows that the proportion of disability-based claims has more than doubled over the last five years.
For individuals to bring a claim for disability discrimination, they must show that they are suffering from a physical or mental condition or impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to do their normal day-to-day activities.
Medical evidence is naturally important but it's worth bearing in mind that employment tribunals have a degree of discretion in interpreting whether someone's workload has exacerbated their condition to the extent that it falls within the definition of a disability.
There are no hard and fast rules, and therefore no certainty for companies looking to defend their behaviour and their reputations.
It underlines why it's important for businesses to put clear policies in place well before they are forced to contend with a claim.
Stress and its health impacts are not always readily obvious and don't conform to a set list of symptoms either.
Firms with staff who may be dealing with someone even potentially suffering from stress should seek guidance straight away to determine whether there is a risk that individual may have a disability before doing anything which might be regarded as discriminatory.
There are other things which bosses might consider to prevent difficulties in the first place.
When it comes to recruitment, it often helps to be specific about the positions available and what exactly they entail.
Do job adverts accurately reflect the posts available and are they displayed in a way and a place to maximise prospects of attracting the most suitable candidates?
If you continue to have trouble finding staff and feel that you have no alternative but to change working arrangements, you should again seek advice - especially if those changes could affect the health of current staff.
Hiring staff is an issue for many businesses right now but not looking after employees can damage your brand and limit your chances of bringing the right people on board to help you in the future too.
To discuss any of the above further, please feel free to contact Alice Kinder: email@example.com | 07526 372580