Employees working too hard: what can an employer do?

Following the new Thriving at Work mental health report, Charlie Thompson, an employment law associate at Harbottle & Lewis LLP, takes a look at the dangerous nature of overwork and what employers can do about it.

Charlie Thompson is an employment law associate at Harbottle & Lewis LLP.

Our understanding of the link between workplace stress and serious illness is becoming increasingly sophisticated, but the potentially dangerous nature of overwork might not yet be widely recognised.

In this context, what can employers do when conscientious and ambitious employees work themselves into the ground?

Just this month, the Guardian published another article about karoshi in Japan (literally “death from overwork”). In one high profile case, an individual died of heart failure after taking just two days off and working 159 hours of overtime. Her death was attributed to karoshi by labour inspectors.

It is very easy to dismiss these tragic and rare cases as extreme or somehow uniquely Japanese, but the maths suggests otherwise.

Japan has a 40-hour working week, so in this case, during the space of one month (minus 2 days) the victim of karoshi worked an average of approximately 11.5 hours a day. Excessive, yes – but not a far cry from what we see in the UK, from professional service firms in the City to “crunch time” in video game development.

Whilst karoshi itself is rare, far more prevalent is widespread ill-health through stress and overwork. Anxiety disorders, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and heart conditions are commonplace. There is an established consensus that intense pressure, excessive working hours and systematic disruption to circadian rhythm can have a negative impact on one’s physical and mental health.

Mental health at work

A recent government review of mental health and employers, “Thriving at work”, found that “15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition”. Against this backdrop, it is not inconceivable that, in the future, we will look back on our current working habits in the same way we look back now on historical workplace phenomena like smoking or going to the pub every lunchtime.

It can be no surprise that many employees can suffer devastating illnesses through work, which in some cases they never fully recover – promising careers can stutter or even end altogether. Thriving at work reports that “300,000 people with a long term mental health condition leave employment every year, equivalent of the whole population of Newcastle or Belfast”.  Many employers therefore are at risk, not only of losing precious talent, but also of facing high value disability discrimination claims under the Equality Act 2010 and personal injury claims in the High Court.


This is by no means a new phenomenon, and many employers meet their duties through a framework of measures such as occupational health advice, confidential helplines, stress management courses and wellbeing perks. These measures can be helpful in defending claims, but are no panacea.

Above all, what conventional measures often fail to address is the common scenario faced by many employers – what are they supposed to do when a conscientious and ambitious employee insists on working themselves into the ground and is simply “too busy” to take time off?


Prevention is better than any cure. While most employers are familiar with their duties to an employee who has become unwell, typically the conventional measures such as occupational health advice are reactive in nature, and only come into play once a breakdown has happened.

One of the sad truths of illness in the workplace is that all too often, once the breakdown has happened, it can be difficult for either the employer or the employee to “hit the reset button”. In its Mental Health at Work Report 2017, Mental Health First Aid England reported that 15% of employees (1.2 million people) face dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion after such an issue at work – up 9% from 2016, and that only 11% of people feel able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager.

The “Thriving at work” review sets out six core mental health standards, which should be implemented by all employers, regardless of “workplace type, industry or size”:

Produce, implement and communicate a mental health work plan that promotes good mental health of all employees and outlines the support available for those who may need it.

Develop mental health awareness among employees by making information, tools and support accessible.

Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling, during the recruitment process and at regular intervals throughout employment, offer appropriate workplace adjustments to employees who require them.

Provide your employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development.

Promote effective people management to ensure all employees have a regular conversation about their health and well-being with their line manager, supervisor or organisational leader and train and support line managers and supervisors in effective management practices.

Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing by understanding available data, talking to employees and understanding risk factors.

Some practical steps an employer can take to help achieve these core standards include:

Proactively monitoring working hours so that those reaching dangerous levels can be identified and appropriate action can be taken, such as automatically being given time off;

Ensuring that teams are appropriately organised and resourced to mitigate the risk of overwork;

Train staff in spotting warning signs of stress and mental illness, such as becoming withdrawn, skipping meals and breaks, or spending excessive time in the office. According to the 2017 report, only less than a quarter of managers have received training in mental health;

Reviewing staff absences and conducting back-to-work interviews to identify stress-related absences;

Giving greater senior management support to human resource departments so they can step in where employees, prepared to work themselves to the bone, are being taken advantage of (perhaps unwittingly) by line managers;

Implementing (and enforcing) a policy on stress at work so managers and supervisors are clear on what their role is in dealing with work-related stress, and employees know that the organisation is taking the issue seriously;

Ensuring that technology is making work less stressful for employees rather than moreso – for example, some employers might wish to implement policies which discourage or limit remote access to email after a certain time each day; and

Conducting a confidential and anonymous stress survey, in an attempt to gauge how much of the workforce is suffering in silence.

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