Health and Safety Executive launches new measures to tackle workplace stress

In November 2004, the UK's Health and Safety Executive launched a new initiative to help employers tackle the problem of work-related stress. The new 'management standards' do not amount to legal regulation but are an authoritative attempt to encourage employers to work with employees and their representatives to reduce stress problems in the workplace.

In November 200,4 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched a new initiative to help employers tackle the problem of work-related stress. The HSE defines stress as 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them'. The HSE argues that stress undermines performance and is costly to employers, as well as making people ill.

Work stress a major problem

Research suggests that occupational stress is a major problem and may be increasing. HSE research suggests that up to 5 million people in the UK feel 'very' or 'extremely' stressed by their work, costing society about GBP 3.7 billion every year (at 1995/6 prices). Work-related stress is the biggest occupational cause of working days lost through injury or ill health in the UK, accounting for over 13 million days a year. According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in its fifth two-yearly survey of workplace safety representatives published in October 2004, 58% of workers complain of being stressed at work, an increase from 56% in 2002. The incidence was higher in larger workplaces (63% in those with over 1,000 employees) and in the public sector (64% compared to 48% in the private sector). The biggest causes of stress were increased workloads, changes at work, staff reductions, long hours and bullying.

However, according to a number of recent research reports, on the whole, employers do not seem to be very committed or effective in tackling problems such as bullying or long working hours.

  • In October 2004 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) published a report, 'Managing conflict at work', which found that although 83% of employers have a clear anti-bullying policy in place, this is weak because a lack of training and support for managers leaves them 'ill-equipped and unprepared'.
  • In November 2004, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) published A survey of workers’ experiences of the Working Time Regulations. It found that of those employees working 48 hours or more a week - the average ceiling permitted, unless otherwise agreed in writing, by the 1998 Working Time Regulations (WTR) (UK0001251F) - only 34% had agreed this with their employer, and of those agreeing a quarter had not agreed in writing. Furthermore, a quarter of those working 48 hours or more a week, and who had not signed an 'individual opt-out', reported pressure from their employer to work long hours. Similar findings were reported in March by the DTI’s Second work-life balance study: results from the employees’ survey. Of those employees usually working over 48 hours a week, 70% had not signed an opt-out agreement. The survey also found strong employee support for flexible working practices to achieve better work-life balance, but many believed this could have an adverse effect on their job security or career prospects.
  • In November 2003, the DTI published research based on a survey and case studies of employers (The business context to long hours working). The report found evidence for 'institutionalised' long working hours, which 'often appeared to be less a consequence of the need for the work to be done, and more a result of other influences such as habit, the culture of the workplace, or the need to enhance levels of pay through overtime'.

Tackling stress through 'management standards'

The new HSE guidance is based on a set of 'management standards'. These do not amount to new regulation, but they do constitute an important reference to help and encourage employers to meet their existing legal obligations. Employers’ duties in this area are set out by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, under which they are required to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities, and under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which stipulates that they are to take measures to control that risk.

The management standards look at six key aspects of work that, if not properly managed, can lead to work-related stress. The standards refer to these in terms of:

  • 'demands' (issues like workload, work patterns, and the work environment);
  • 'control' (how much say a person has in the way they do their work);
  • 'support' (the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues);
  • 'relationships' (promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour);
  • 'role' (whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles); and
  • 'change' (how organisational change, large or small, is managed and communicated in the organisation).

In each case the emphasis is on employers systematically and effectively informing and, in particular, consulting employees concerning issues such as workloads, job design, training and bullying, and on their having systems in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.

Allied to the initiative is guidance aimed at employees, produced by the International Stress Management Association, indicating how they can help tackle work-related stress using the management standards approach. The leaflet is supported by the HSE, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), the TUC and the CIPD. It quotes Acas as stating that 'stress is often a symptom of poor employment relations'. The HSE similarly makes it clear that the problem of occupational stress, and the measures needed to help solve it, concern not just individual employees but often work groups as a whole. In this, trade unions can have a significant role. For example, HSE guidance on risk assessments for stress emphasises 'consulting with employees and their representatives to identify problem areas; a commitment to take action to address these problems in partnership with employees and their representatives; and a commitment to review action plans'.

Social partner responses

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) acknowledged the new standards to be 'an authoritative set of principles and a framework to help employers and employees tackle stress at work', a problem that contributed to 'increased sickness absence, high staff turnover and lower productivity'. Individual large employers also gave their support. Clive Shiel of Shell plc said: 'The health and safety of our employees is a priority for Shell and we welcome the HSE standards. Shell participated in the HSE pilot scheme, which we believe helps raise awareness across various business sectors.' Robert Pascall of the West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust said: 'The management standards have been designed by HSE to respond to the specific needs of organisations. Looking at the six areas of job design outlined in the standards, my management team have focused our efforts on the key issues faced by our employees.' However, Janet Asherson, head of health and safety at the CBI, also cautioned that 'stress can be difficult to define and has a number of work-related and lifestyle causes … Work is not the only source of stress. Home life and domestic arrangements can be causes of stress too.'

The TUC also welcomed the new standards. Its senior health and safety officer, Hugh Robertson, said that 'In the absence of legislation these standards are the most effective tool that employers can use to end the epidemic of stress-related illnesses.' TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said that: 'At a time when many employees’ stress levels are rising, most employers are doing very little to combat the UK’s growing stress epidemic … The new HSE management standards should encourage employers to take their staff welfare responsibilities more seriously.' Mr Barber also warned that: 'For those (employers) that refuse to take any measures to reduce stress levels, the HSE must be prepared to take enforcement action to prevent them continuing to harm their workforce.'

Commentary

On the face of it, if employers want to minimise the problems of absence, turnover, poor motivation and productivity, they have a vested interest in reducing the excessive work demands experienced by many of their employees. Yet the evidence suggests that the level of employee stress is high and enduring, representing a systems failure in the management of staff. The new management standards introduced by the HSE have been widely welcomed as encouraging best practice in stress management, emphasising the involvement of employees in identifying and solving problems in the workplace. However, given the structural problems of increasing competition in the private sector, and resource constraints and staff shortages in the public sector, the task of reducing stress looks like an uphill struggle - not least since the HSE and trade unions are already stretched in trying to deal with 'rogue employers'. In a context of staff cuts and rising workloads, managers will always be tempted to pressure employees into working longer and harder, and bullying will often go unpunished (UK9706135F). The encouragement of 'best practice' should therefore also go hand in hand with the provision of more enforcement resources for the HSE and greater rights for safety representatives in the workplace (UK0409101F). (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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