The Health and Safety Executive has decided that employers who drive their staff to nervous breakdown and chronic depression are just as culpable as those whose employees are physically injured in dangerous workplaces.
Next week, guidelines will be issued to thousands of British companies on their legal responsibilities for protecting staff against high levels of stress. The move follows research by the HSE showing that 500,000 Britons are suffering illness caused by work- related stress.
Jenny Bacon, the HSE's director general, said last night that high stress levels were now being suffered across the work spectrum. "This is affecting managerial, professional and clerical staff, care workers and nurses as well as teachers," she said.
Tom Mellish, the TUC's health and safety officer, said stress was now the number one safety concern among British employees. "Employers should be prosecuted," he said. "There is plenty of information and support structures out there for them to do something about it."
A spokesman for the Confederation of British Industry said: "In many instances, stress problems in the workplace are carried over from private lives. Employers cannot be held to account for factors over which they have no control."
Measures designed to help workers relax, like massage at the desk, had only short-term benefits, the research showed.
No firm has yet been prosecuted for causing stress to its staff but companies have become more conscious of the issue since a court ordered Northumberland County Council to pay pounds 175,000 in compensation to John Walker, a senior social worker who suffered two nervous breakdowns, in 1996.
Since then, several employers have been forced to make out-of-court settlements, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, after stressed workers brought civil actions.
The HSE believes that it will be in a stronger position to take action against firms who subject their staff to stress if the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, agrees to the introduction of tougher rules in the form of an Approved Code of Practice on stress.
The new official guidelines will warn employers: "It's your duty in law to make sure that your employees aren't made ill by their work."
Firms are told to take an understanding attitude towards members of staff who admit to feeling stressed and not to see the admission as "a sign of weakness".
The guidance states: "Don't be tempted to think that firing someone provides an easy way out. If you don't act reasonably in dismissing an employee, they could claim unfair dismissal."
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