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Part 5 of workplace stress: the legal essentials

Physical symptoms

It is generally accepted that workplace stress can result in physical symptoms, for example:

  • Cardio-vascular disease including heart disease and strokes
  • Musculo-skeletal problems
  • Psoriasis, eczema and other skin conditions
  • Anxiety, including panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches and migraine
  • Acute digestive conditions
  • Insomnia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Lower resistance to viruses and bacteria
  • Compromise of immune system
  • High blood pressure
  • Tooth grinding
  • Excessive consumption of drugs including alcohol, caffeine and nicotine
  • General behavioural problems.

These physical reactions are generally recognised as being caused by the release of hormones into the bloodstream. Such hormones are designed to deal with primitive physical threats and are described as causing “fight or flight”. The immediate effect of these hormones is to increase blood pressure, pulse and breathing rates and to intensify the reaction of sensory organs. This “alarm reaction” is short-term.

In the longer term, individuals may develop coping strategies. If these are inadequate, prolonged stress may cause severe physical and emotional disorders.

The following factors have been identified as affecting individual reactions to stress:

  • Self-confidence
  • Social, family and work support systems
  • Organisational skills
  • Emotional stability
  • Lifestyle
  • Levels of expectations
  • Effectiveness of coping mechanisms
  • Physical fitness.

Most of these factors are, of course, outside the control of employers.

Treatment

  • Medication
  • Relaxation therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Counselling
  • Stress appraisals

It should be noted that there is a growing body of opinion that medication involving antidepressants or tranquillisers, while providing a short-term remedy and enabling a return to work, May worsen symptoms in the long-term.

Advisers and representatives need to be aware that clients who are taking regular medication may be suffering side effects including paradoxical reactions. Their behaviour may be affected by their treatment, and their symptoms may be worsened by the stress of legal proceedings.

Nervous shock

Much of the case law around the issue of psychiatric injury has used the phrase “nervous shock”. The law is complex but the general principle emerging from the cases seems to be that damages may not be recovered solely on the basis that, as a result of negligence, a claimant has suffered sensations of fear, mental distress or grief. When the nervous shock amounts to a recognisable condition, for example depression, the position is different.

“Nervous shock” includes states of mind such as fear, anger and disappointment. This should be distinguished from recognised types of mental illness, for example psychoses or neuroses. The courts have traditionally been reluctant to award compensation for mental distress as opposed to diagnosed mental illness.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

This can be described, in general terms, as a serious anxiety disorder caused by exposure to a stress-inducing experience outside the normal range of work experience. This includes, for example, witnessing fatal accidents. The symptoms of PTSD may include re-experiencing feelings aroused by the event.

Burnout

The stage at which physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress results in revulsion from the world, and apathy.


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