Are your employees stressed, harassed and feeling the pinch? Recent UK and EU legislation means employers must now look after their staff's welfare and offer extra benefits to offset the pressures of work. Kathryn McCarthy lists the necessary perks.

The workplace has never been tougher for employers, with reams of new UK and EU laws designed to encourage better treatment of employees. Big businesses may find it easier to comply with new regulations, as they have the resources to comply, but smaller firms and recently merged organisations often struggle.

Today's employers need to catch problems early and use dispute resolution as a safeguard against increasing staff grievances. The onus is on them to make sure they keep up to date with new workplace rights, and the standard approach is to integrate employee procedures with a benefits package. Clear guidelines ensure that policies on the whole range of workplace issues are available to all staff, and that benefits are designed to tackle the effects of the everyday hazards of working life. The most common benefits include private medical and permanent health insurance.

Mechanisms for dealing with stress at work, family-friendly and harassment policies are high on the agenda for employers; they need to demonstrate that they are aware of these common problems and have a procedure for dealing with them.

Nip it in the bud
Spotting early warning signs of stress can help in addressing the issue before it escalates, so it is important for employers to have procedures in place to monitor staff and identify potentially serious situations. There are no easy ways to spot stress, because it manifests itself in different ways in different people and can be caused by factors both in and out of work. But employers are in a better position to combat it, and to provide a more pleasant working environment for staff, if they train managers and adopt clear procedures. Stress can at worst cause ill health, depression and even suicide, and it is considered one of the biggest potential liability problems for employers in the future.

"The first question to ask is whether the company has a policy on staff welfare and the necessary processes and procedures," says Alan Young, head of human resources for Groupama Insurances. "The first thing employers should do is have policies on stress, being family-friendly and harassment. This gives the managers at the sharp end the guidelines on how to behave."

Young believes that once these policies are in place, the next important step is to insist managers follow them. "This can mean training them to make sure they know what to do. We are seeing new employment laws all the time, so companies need to be prepared for them."

Some of the more progressive firms offer counselling helplines and even legal advice lines, to help fight stress head-on. Legal expenses providers often supply advice lines, and some other firms also extend legal expenses to their staff, so they can have free advice on any aspect of the law, including employment issues.

Ray Kneeshaw, sales and marketing manager of DAS, believes the insurance market generally overlooks legal expenses as an employee benefit. "The fact that legal aid has been virtually done away with makes it a logical benefit. There is no question of there being a conflict of interest within a company. If a problem arises and early advice is sought on either side, we can help to work towards speedy resolution of the dispute so that both sides feel happy. It helps head off potential claims early on, and if both sides have the cover there is equal trust."

Pauline Aubigne, head of personnel and staff development at UIA Insurance, explains that her company adopts a proactive approach, working with staff to address issues and problems. It provides affinity insurance schemes for union members and operates a large call centre, so good employee practices are essential.

"UIA has adopted employment policies that focus on providing staff with a greater level of support than statutory requirements," she says. "We provide staff with access to an independent and totally confidential helpline, which offers advice and support on a range of work-related, personal and family issues."

In addition, UIA has a link to a local hospital to provide occupational health services for staff and it uses risk assessment tools to identify and address staff concerns.

In response to employment exposures in the workplace, there is now a growing market for audits of employment practice. "Consultants are sent in to undertake a health-check on the company, to see how they are treating their people," says Kneeshaw. "Absentee rates can be a good indicator of problems, and so can exit interviews when employees leave. Checks are made to see whether managers are using the company grievance procedure correctly, while gender and racial mix is also assessed. From this, a full report with recommendations is provided. It is a good risk management tool for employers."

Options for smaller firms
Many smaller organisations do not have full-time human resources staff, so it is more difficult for them to keep up with legislation and implement good practice. This problem is widespread, because of the high numbers of small to medium-sized businesses in the UK. However, there are many government-funded sources of advice and information that these companies can turn to. Citizens' Advice Bureaux are a good resource on rights at work and there are many websites that provide information and help.

A clear policy on the use of company email is another area where companies must make sure they have good procedures in place, especially as abuse can lead to dismissal. Since October, employers have the right to intercept employees' emails and phone calls under the controversial Regulations of Investigatory Powers Act.

Martin Hill, of Leeds-based risk managers Smithson Mason Group (SMG), says the new legislation protects employers but also presents different risks. "It has been unclear how to regulate email use by employees, ever since it became an everyday part of business life. Most companies have, therefore, been reluctant to have a formal approach; but the situation is rapidly becoming clearer and ignoring it is potentially very costly. A straightforward honest email policy will act as a deterrent to email abuse."

The Human Rights Act (HRA), which also became law in October 2000, has implications for employers. If businesses have proper practices in place, the HRA provides a framework for employers to explain why they have introduced policies, with disciplinary action if these codes are not adhered to. SMG believes the act changes the whole legal environment, as companies and employees need to be aware not only of their own rights, but of the rights of others.

The HRA ensures both an individual's right to privacy and the right to freedom of speech. These two can appear at odds with each other, which is why SMG says it is important to introduce fair and balanced guidelines and working practices. SMG's Hill adds: "Under the act, people have the right not to be unduly treated, which means the right to a reasonable lifestyle and working environment, free from the intimidation of stress, discrimination and bullying at work."

Staff Benefits

  • Private medical insurance, including: health screening, lifestyle advice
  • Private health insurance
  • Legal expenses insurance
  • Employee assistance package, including helplines offering: legal advice, stress and other counselling consumer advice
  • Staff and management training programmes
  • Stress `health-checks'
  • Company doctor and/or nurse