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De-stress the workplace

By Melanie Cooper

Monday 1st December 2003

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Do the OSH laws cover the emotional well-being of employees? I have made my employer aware of the stress another employee is causing me, but nothing has been done. What redress do I have?

"Mrs.Sutherland, Anna's being mean to me." This was you at school, wasn't it? And no doubt the teacher told Anna to stop being mean to you, thus setting you up with false expectations about life being fair. Harden up.

Your alternative is to take your chances with a long and winding, politically correct trail that could create more rifts than it mends.

OSH laws do in fact place a duty on employers to provide a safe workplace for employees - including facilitating mental well-being. Russell McVeagh solicitor Astrid Sandberg says if an employer fails to meet this obligation, which could include a situation where an employer fails to address a complaint from a stressed employee about another employee's actions, the employee has a range of options.

At the start of the trail, the employee should approach the employer and raise their concerns verbally. For a paper trail this could then be confirmed in writing. The employee should then check with the employer a few days later to see what has been done.

Sandberg says if the employee checks back with the employer in a few days and nothing has been done about the complaint (or it's an unsatisfactory response), further options include a complaint to OSH, or raising a personal grievance. Mediation through the Department of Labour is an option. To help you through the complicated process you can make use of the free advice provided by the Employment Relations Infoline, 0800 800 863.

Mental health days seem to be fairly standard where I work. What does the law say - is the employer in any position to take action if he finds employees are taking sick leave when they are not genuinely ill?

You're a tattletale. Mental health days are the preserve of sane employees and they ward against those horrific news stories about the worker that went "postal" and took out his workmates.

But as it happens, no, they're not legitimate. Sandberg says an employee who has worked for an employer for more than six months is entitled to a minimum five days of paid special leave in every 12-month period but, unless otherwise agreed, this leave is only to be used if the employee (or their partner, parent or child) is sick, or they've suffered a bereavement.

The official line is that if an employee takes sick leave when they are not genuinely sick, they are absent from work without proper authority and they are behaving dishonestly.
"This is a breach of the duty of trust, confidence and good faith that an employee owes to the employer and grounds for disciplinary action if discovered by the employer," says Sandberg. Some employers guard against the mental health day by requiring medical certificates when sick leave is taken.

Circulating this information around your workmates won't make you any friends though, and wise employers will let the occasional mental health day slide.

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