Following the HSE's announcement of its new Management Standards for work-related stress, Occupational Stress Consultant Carole Spiers outlines the business case for stress management, and argues that there is now a compelling need for UK businesses to adopt a more 'healthy' workplace culture.
The business case for stress management
According to latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
- About half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill
- Up to 5 million people in the UK feel 'very' or 'extremely' stressed by their work
- Work-related stress costs society about £3.7 billion every year (at 1995/6 prices)
As well as acting as an unnecessary drain on the economy, workplace stress is also the subject of increasing government legislation:
- Many employers do not realise that since the publication of the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations (1999), all organisations with five or more employees have had a legal duty to conduct regular risk assessments of workplace hazards including psychosocial hazards such as stress. These assessments should then be used to identify and either avoid or reduce such hazards.
- A written health policy is also mandatory for all firms with five or more employees, and this should include a stress and bullying & harassment policy.
- On 3 November 2004, the HSE published its new Management Standards for work-related stress - designed to help ensure that organisations address key aspects of workplace stress (or 'risk factors') including demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.
- While the Standards themselves do not impose a legal duty on organisations, breach of the applicable regulations could lead to criminal prosecution, or claims for compensation through the civil courts.
So which aspects of work-related stress are the HSE most concerned about, and what can (and should) employers do to tackle them?
What do the Management Standards cover?
For each of the HSE's identified 'risk factors', the Management Standards include a description of what should be happening in an organisation (or 'states to be achieved') in order for the Standard to be met. 'Demands', for example, includes issues like workload, work patterns and the work environment. States to be achieved are that:
- The organisation provides employees with adequate and achievable demands in relation to the agreed hours of work
- People's skills and abilities are matched to the job demands
- Jobs are designed to be within the capabilities of employees
- Employees' concerns about their work environment are addressed
One of the major criticisms that has been levelled at the standards - particularly by the Trade Unions - is that because they are not legally binding, they will not give employers sufficient encouragement to act. While there is an element of truth in this, it's still the case that breach of the applicable regulations could lead to criminal prosecution or claims for compensation through the civil courts - something all employers need to be fully aware of.
So what should employers do?
The Management Standards are all about highlighting potential areas of stress, and encouraging employers to take action to reduce these - with the goal of matching the performance of the top 20% of organisations that are already doing this. If you think your organisation may be experiencing problems due to workplace stress, it will therefore need to take a proactive approach to tackling it:
- Many organisations face deadline pressures or sudden changes in work demands, and employees need the necessary training and experience to meet the ever-increasing demands made on them. Examples include training in resilience, time management, communication skills, and - for managers in particular - stress awareness enabling them to recognise the early warning signs of stress in themselves and others.
- Where employees have been forced to take time away from work as a result of stress, their rehabilitation back to work needs to be carefully managed.
- For those employees who require specialist support, Employee Assistance Programmes and counselling services are a vital component in employee well being.
- Training in communication (and particularly active listening) skills is essential to help ensure that managers are aware of their team members' problems and in a position to offer early interventions to resolve these.
Ultimately, reducing workplace stress is largely a matter of common sense and good management practice, and simply requires employers and employees to work together for the common good. Both share a joint responsibility for reducing stress - which, when this is successful, can help employees to enjoy their work more, and businesses to thrive as a result.
For this to become a reality, organisations need to work towards the creation of a 'healthy' work culture - one where there is an intelligent two-way dialogue between managers and employees; where concerns can be raised in the confidence that actions will be taken; and where everyone in the organisation recognises stress as an unnecessary and unacceptable drain on creativity and resources. Or to put it another way, a culture where healthy ways of working have become so ingrained that the need for the Management Standards will no longer exist.
By Carole Spiers MIHE MISMA, Business Stress Consultant
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