Initiatives to reduce psychosocial risk

In 2004, in consultation with the social partners, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive developed a set of management standards to reduce psychosocial risk at work. Building on this work, new national standards are being developed by the British Standards Institute in conjunction with the social partners and other expert organisations. It is hoped these will provide normative standards, not only for managers, but also for the prevention of psychosocial risks in the workplace.

Background

In the UK, debates about psychosocial risks in the workplace are led by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the national independent regulator for health and safety in the workplace. In consultation with the social partners, the HSE has developed an approach to psychosocial risks at work that focuses on collective issues related to the nature of work, the design of work and the work environment, rather than focusing on the behaviour and practices of individual workers.

Management standards

Psychosocial risks were already high on the HSE’s agenda before the conclusion of the European framework agreement on work-Related Stress on 8 October 2004.

Immediately following its adoption, the UK social partners and the then Department for Trade and Industry set up a working group to implement the agreement in the UK. Within months, the HSE launched its Management Standards for work-related stress, which cover the six primary sources of stress at work. The standards were designed to help employers meet their general obligation to assess and manage physical and mental health risks but are not legally enforceable, and employers are free to take other action. However, if they do follow the guidance, they will normally be doing enough to comply with the law.

The management standards place a strong emphasis on employers, employees and their representatives working in partnership to develop effective and practical solutions that are relevant to the specific organisation. They also encourage organisations to aim for continuous improvement, given the business and health benefits of tackling stress effectively.

In practice, unions and professional associations use the system as a basis for negotiation with employers and as a way of educating line managers, and also as an access point to address other issues.

In the absence of specific legislation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) acknowledges that the HSE’s stress management standards are the most effective way of dealing with workplace stress. However, they insist on the importance of involving unions at every stage.

Sector-level initiatives

The HSE, with the support of the social partners, embarked on a stress priority programme at sector level to concentrate efforts in five sectors with the highest levels of stress – central government, local government, the health services, finance and education. This programme included a dedicated helpline, guidance on the HSE website and ministerial events. The National Health Service’s (NHS) Health and Well-being report (959 KB PDF) and the Health, work and well-being in local authorities report published by the Local Government Association in 2010 both recommended the involvement of social partners and the adoption of the HSE management standards in their respective sectors.

Management behaviour and style

More recently, work has focused on improving the people-management skills of managers. The HSE, in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Investors in People (IiP), have designed a series of tools to allow managers to assess how well they prevent and reduce stress in their workplaces, and to reflect on their behaviour and management style.

New British standards

In 2011, the British Standards Institute (BSI), working with the HSE and the Nottingham University-based Psychosocial Risk Management Excellence Framework Consortium (PRIMA- EF), developed the first of a set of new national standards designed to prevent psychosocial risks in the workplace. The consortium, collaborating with social partners and expert organisations, promotes policy and practice at national and enterprise level within the European Union.

This project places special emphasis on high-risk groups of workers and sectors and on gender. It also stressed the importance of finding ways to implement the standards in different types of enterprises, such as small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Three new standards are being developed:

  • PAS 1010 (Guidance on the management of psychosocial risks in the workplace, published in 2011);
  • PAS 1011 (Management competencies and standards);
  • PAS 1012 (Resilience, well-being and return to work).

The standards are set out in publicly available specification documents. These are sponsored fast-track standards, developed according to guidelines set out by the BSI. After two years, the PAS standards will be reviewed to decide whether they should become formal British standards.

Although not legally enforceable, British standards provide a consensus-led benchmark of good practice, and organisations can show evidence of compliance with these normative standards by advertising the name and number of the standard or by displaying a certification mark such as the BSI Kitemark™. Future research on their uptake, use and outcomes will show whether these aims have been achieved.

Helen Newell IRRU, Warwick Business School

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