You take on a new employee but soon after they join they show signs of stress: they are withdrawn, they break down in tears in the office and they are not coping with the demands placed on them. They confide in you that they have a history of depression and, because of the stress they are under at work, they have recently been prescribed anti-depressants again.
Do you take a long-term view to manage the problem, or do you act quickly to remove it? An immediate “sticking plaster” response is advisable: you should meet the employee to try to understand what is causing the stress and set up regular chats for them, either with you, HR or with another person in the organisation who can act as a sounding board. You could also consider whether there are any other suitable positions available that might remove the causes of the stress.
The employee’s condition might improve, but it might not. If it doesn’t, you face the prospect of a deteriorating relationship in which the employee’s stress becomes worse, their absence levels soar, their performance level falls away and they become a long-term problem.
When faced with employees with conditions of this kind, we are increasingly attuned to taking a long-term approach to managing the problem and often that is the right thing to do. But here, would it be better and less risky to terminate the employee’s employment very soon after the problem emerges? Yes, probably. Is that hard-hearted? Possibly, but it may have the effect of releasing the employee from a situation they find stressful, as well as removing a difficulty in the workplace.
The legal risks of taking a long-term approach are that, as time goes on:
- your potential liability could increase if you have contributed to the stress or failed to prevent it
- you are more likely to be guilty of a failure to make reasonable adjustments, which is an ongoing duty in respect of an employee with a disability
- you are exposed to an unfair dismissal claim if the employee acquires two years’ service
In addition, in dealing with the problem you may incur direct costs (such as sick pay for the employee or pay for temporary cover) and commit a considerable amount of management time and effort.
There can still be risk in terminating employment quickly and it is wise to take advice on your legal position before you do so. However, sometimes quick and decisive action is best.