Managing the risk of work-related stress

A study on managing occupational stress takes a risk management approach to the evaluation of stress in the workplace. It offers practical guidance on assessing, evaluating and reducing work-related stress, based on international research findings.

Context

The European social partners’ Framework agreement on work-related stress (80Kb pdf) aims to provide employers and workers with a framework to identify and prevent or manage such problems (EU0502AR01). Work content, organisation, and environment, poor communication and personal characteristics are all potential causes for work-related stress.

Stress is understood as: 'a state, which is accompanied by physical, psychological or social complaints or dysfunctions and which results from individuals feeling unable to bridge a gap with the requirements or expectations placed on them. … Stress is not a disease but prolonged exposure to it may reduce effectiveness at work and may cause ill-health.'

A report for the European Working Conditions Observatory (NL0502TR01), based on national surveys and research, investigates the risks and consequences of work-related stress.

European data

In the European working conditions surveys 2000 and 2001, 28% of workers in the EU15 found that their health was affected by work-related stress. The same was true for 28.4% in the then acceding and candidate countries (10 of which are now the new Member States).

Health affected by stress (%)

Risk management approach

A study on managing the risk of workplace stress (for sale) develops a risk management model that can be applied to the health and safety risks of occupational stressors. The authors point to the enormous costs associated with stress outcomes - e.g. mental and physical ill-health, sick leave, reduced productivity, high staff turnover, work accidents - and to the potential benefits of successfully managing the risks of occupational stress. In the consultation of the social partners on stress and its effects on health and safety at work (156Kb pdf), the European Commission refers to an estimated cost of at least €20 billion each year, based on 1999 figures for the European countries.

Case study examples illustrate the three stages of the risk management process: assessment, evaluation and reduction.

Risk assessment

Systematic risk assessment involves identifying hazards and assessing associated risks. Risks posed by workplace stressors can be understood in relation to three elements:

  • exposure: level of perceived pressure from a given stressor;
  • consequence of exposure to stress: physiological (e.g. high blood pressure, chest pain), psychological (e.g. depression, anxiety, irritability) and behavioural (e.g. excessive drinking, smoking symptoms);
  • probability: the severity of the risk.

The focus is on stress audit tools that can be used as organisational risk assessment tools. The audit tools discussed are the: occupational stress indicator (OSI), pressure management indicator (PMI) and the ASSET organisational stress screening tool. The case study example outlines how a stress audit is conducted, including the identification of stress ‘hot spots’.

Risk evaluation

This stage evaluates the extent of the risk caused by workplace stressors. The process includes the:

  • calculation of risk factors for the workforce as a whole;
  • identification of high risk groups and individuals;
  • understanding the links between risk exposure and consequences;
  • assessment of the acceptability of the risks identified;
  • design of risk control strategies.

Risk reduction

Risk reduction encompasses the implementation of control strategies, and monitoring and review processes. The focus is on the use of information gained from the stress audit and risk evaluation, and includes an overview and analysis of past stress interventions.

A detailed analysis of the risk assessment and evaluation can help to determine exactly what type of risk control measures are required in relation to the type of stressor. An important aspect of risk reduction is evaluating the impact of the control measures. This includes the effectiveness of the programme in reducing/preventing stress, and assessing the reactions of the workforce to the programme. The study states that reviews of stress intervention programmes suggest that such programmes frequently fail to emphasise prevention at the source.

Stress management interventions

Stress management interventions can concentrate on different levels:

  • The nature of interventions at primary level is preventative. The target is a reduction in the number and/or intensity of stressors. This approach aims at work environments, technologies or organisational structures. Examples of interventions are job redesign, employee participation, increasing employee control, or flexible working.
  • Secondary level interventions have a preventative/reactive nature. They aim at modifying individual responses to stressors. Examples are stress management training, communication and information sharing.
  • Interventions at tertiary level focus on treatment of employees already suffering stress-related illness. They aim at minimising the damaging consequences of stressors by helping individuals to cope better. Examples are employee assistance programmes or stress counselling.

The secondary and tertiary interventions are frequently used to help individuals to manage job stress, while primary level interventions are relatively rare.

Monitoring and feedback

The final stage involves monitoring the effect of risk control measures and evaluating their effectiveness. Any stress intervention programme needs to be an ongoing process.

Key factors for successful stress management are a combination of interventions, aimed at both the individual and the work environment, including worker participation and top management support throughout all stages of the stress management model.

Reference

Clarke, S. and Cooper, C. L., Managing the risk of workplace stress, health and safety hazards , Routledge, London/New York, 2004.

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