Whitehall sources accept that the move will almost certainly lead to a spate of legal claims against companies and will "upset'' many employers. But they are convinced that tough action is essential. The Health and Safety Executive has already written a draft code, warning that stress can be "far more damaging" to people in the long term than physical illness.
Companies could be forced to shorten the hours worked by their staff, take on more people to relieve existing workers or improve workplace conditions in order to fulfil their duty to reduce stress levels. A series of public meetings is planned next month to assess the scale of the problem and draw up proposals for tackling it.
The move follows a government-backed study which found that almost a quarter of workers claims to suffer "extreme stress" in the office. About 1,000 of the 4,000 employees interviewed, who ranged from cleaners to surgeons, said they had suffered physical or mental ill-health as a result of workplace pressure. They reported symptoms including tiredness, headaches, sleeplessness and excessive drinking.
Trades unions have long called for companies to be forced to take responsibility for stress in the workplace. However, the Confederation of British Industry argues that companies should not be made to pay for stress which workers bring into the office from home.
The Government believes that a legally binding "approved code of practice" - formally defining stress and bringing it under health and safety legislation - is the best way forward. This would mean that a court could rule that an employer had broken the law if it did not follow the guidelines.
Insiders acknowledge that it could be difficult to define "stress" - as an activity deemed stressful by one person could be a stimulating challenge to another. However, ministers are determined to tackle a problem which they believe is undermining the British workforce and believe that the problems can be overcome. "Stress can be as dangerous as a piece of equipment in the workplace," a Whitehall source said.
The draft code, already drawn up by the Health and Safety Executive, defines stress as "the reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. It arises when they worry that they can't cope".
It says that symptoms associated with stress include anxiety, depression and heart disease, and employers have a responsibility to reduce their employees' exposure to such risk. "Stress is not the same as ill-health," the draft states. "But in some cases, particularly where pressures are intense and continue for some time, the effects of stress can be more sustained and far more damaging, leading to psychological problems and physical ill-health."
The code, which would have to be approved by an independent panel of experts, is also likely to identify things which could exacerbate stress - including bullying, organisational style and working conditions.
Employers will be told to tackle these problems at source and train managers to spot work-related stress in their staff. The draft code says that even "if it is not reasonably practicable to prevent work-related stress at source completely, employers should seek to mitigate, as far as is reasonably practicable, the consequences of the stress that remains."
ARE YOU UPTIGHT? THE SIGNS
5 Do you usually feel tired when you wake up in the morning?
5 Do you snap at colleagues and have rows with friends over small and normally trivial incidents?
5 Do you find that you cannot concentrate for reasonable periods of time and find yourself re-reading things over and over again?
5 Do you feel worried, isolated or cry for no particular reason?
5 Are you drinking or smoking more than normal?
5 Do you frequently feel dizzy or faint?
5 Do you have heart palpitations or breathing problems?
5 Do you have excessive headaches?
5 Are you procrastinating more than normal?
5 Are you having problems sleeping properly?
5 Do you have a feeling of impending disaster?
5 Are you constipated?
5 Are you having sexual problems such as impotence?
5 Are you unable to forget work problems when you are at home?Reuse content