Are you doing enough?

It’s
time to get tough on stress at work, and if you don’t, then your organisation
will run the risk of contravening employment law. Linda Pettit looks at the
ways that organisations can combat stress

The
statistics speak for themselves. Five million people suffer from some form of
workplace stress, and of the 40 million working days lost due to injury or
illness during 2001-2002, nearly a quarter were due to either stress, anxiety
or depression.

But
UK employers have been slow to take stress seriously, forcing the Health &
Safety Executive (HSE) to take firm action, and this July it served a landmark
enforcement notice against West Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust, requiring it to
assess stress levels among its doctors and nurses and introduce a programme to
reduce it. The alternative to complying is prosecution.

This
move served as a short, sharp reminder to British industry that employers have
a legal duty to protect the health of employees under the Management of Health
and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, and the Health and Safety at Work Act
1974. And these pieces of legislation relate not only to the physical health
and welfare of employees, but perhaps more importantly, their mental health
too.

“It
is no longer viable for employers to consider the management and prevention of
work-related stress as a matter that should be resolved at the individual level
alone,” says the HSE in its July report, Beacons of Excellence in Stress
Management. The report, along with another on rehabilitating employees
following absence due to work-related stress, and the previously published
Tackling work-related stress (2001), are likely to form the backbone of new
guidelines for management on the assessment and reduction of stress in the
workplace, due out in the autumn.

Whether
your organisation develops a dedicated policy on stress, takes a more
problem-centred approach, tackles stress as part of a general look at employee
well-being, or deals with it on an individual level, it still needs to make the
same commitments, says the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development
(CIPD) in its Quick Facts sheet on work-related stress.

There
is a need for a clear statement, supported by senior management, showing that
the organisation is committed to developing a working environment that promotes
the health and well-being of the organisation and its employees. The statement
needs to be supported by a number of principles, including: a constant review
of company policies, procedures and initiatives to ensure the organisation
maximises employee well-being; the identification and regular review of the key
well-being indicators; the provision of effective advice, support, counselling
and training to enhance employee well-being; and the process for evaluating the
effectiveness of all well-being initiatives.

A
good starting point for any organisation considering adopting a policy on
stress at work is the HSE’s model policy, published in February, which outlines
the role of each area, from line managers to safety representatives. And this
is the key; successful stress reduction involves a commitment from employees,
middle management and those at the top.

With
any intention to reduce workplace stress, much of the responsibility lies with
the line manager in day-to-day contact with individuals. Commonly-cited
contributors to workplace stress include poor communications, inadequate
training, ineffective recruitment, and employees feeling they have little or no
control and influence in decisions and little support from their immediate
management.

To
be successful, any policy on stress needs to first ensure managers have good
communication with employees. Managers must also assess their staff on an
ongoing basis ensuring they have adequate training for the job, are not
overloaded and have ‘meaningful development opportunities’. They should also
monitor staff working hours and whether they are taking their holiday leave, as
well as knowing them on a personal level, and being aware of any home-related
problems.

But
an ideal stress policy doesn’t start and end with managers. Support, training
and guidance should be offered to managers by occupational health (OH), and HR
departments need to ensure managers are equipped to deal with stress and
anxiety and are able to spot the signs. As well as providing support and
advice, HR can collate meaningful sickness absence statistics to judge the
success of any stress-reduction policy, and should encourage referral to
occupational workplace counsellors where appropriate.

OH
departments play a vital role too. They too should refer individuals to
workplace counsellors where necessary, and monitor and review the effectiveness
of the company’s stress reduction policy. Health and safety representatives
need to be consulted on any workplace changes that could cause stress too, and
should be involved in conducting any workplace surveys or risk assessment.

But
although having such a strategy is a good start, tackling stress in the
workplace must really go further, says stress consultant Carole Spiers.

“Stress
is being taken more seriously, but too many companies are burying their heads
in the sand,” she says. “They think when people are paid to do a job they
should just get on with it. I frequently see management that don’t know how to
talk to their staff – poor communication is a key factor behind workplace
stress.

“People
often don’t feel valued and recognised. No-one says thank you, or recognises
the value of people. We are human beings and we need to know we are going in
the right direction. Management must set an example,” she says.

“Any
policy must live and breathe the organisation. Too many companies have policies
and documents filed away, but this isn’t the answer. Stress management needs to
be a culture of the organisation, not just paying lip service to it.”

Case
study: Marks & Spencer
Putting people skills back into the business

For
Marks & Spencer (M&S), the issues of stress and the mental health of
its 67,000 employees have become crucial. In the competitive world of high
street retailing, it’s easy to see how the focus can be more on being a success
and making money, than the welfare of employees.

M&S
has long taken occupational health seriously, however, and staff have access to
a large team of doctors and nurses through its OH department. Ann Price, head
of OH, is involved with several projects aimed at improving the health and
well-being of staff, but sees one of the most crucial as the group’s ‘Work
Well’ programme – launched last June and still being rolled out.

As
part of the scheme, the onus is on improving communication between line
managers and staff, ensuring anyone struggling in their job is identified and
helped.  

Price
worked with an occupational psychologist to produce a four-hour modular
training package for line managers. Under the ‘Work Well’ programme, a subtle
mindset change has also come about at M&S, which Price believes is vital.

“We
now encourage adult-to-adult conversations between line managers and employees,
rather than adult-to-child, which can be adversarial," she explains.
"With adult-to-child, the line manager would adopt a parental approach,
which can often elicit regressive behaviour, such as anger or crying.

“In
adult-to-adult exchanges, both look for solutions. We are putting back really
important human skills that can sometimes be lost," says Price. "Some
of the managers are very young, and it’s important that the people element is
viewed as important as making money for the business."

Managers
are now encouraged to look for signs of employees struggling, and getting
stressed. Changes in appearance or behaviour, lack of patience, aggression,
decreases in performance levels and absence or lateness are typical indicators.

Line
managers are also briefed to regularly engage with the individuals and to know
more about them. "It is important that human contact remains a
priority,"she  adds.

"However,
employees also have to admit there is a problem and request help when they need
it, and line managers are taught how to deal with these requests for help.
Issues such as job design are also examined.

“When
people are off sick, the aim is to explore all avenues to ensure issues are
dealt with fully,” says Price. “That’s when the strong relationship between
line manager and line report is really important.”

Some
of the best at stress-busting…

HSA

Business:
Healthcare

Number
of employees: 650

Stress-busters:
Offices are brightly coloured and there’s a relaxation room on every floor.
Workstations are ergonomically designed. Each employee has life assurance worth
eight times their salary and everyone can join the free health plan. The
company offers flexible working as well as flexi-days, and staff can ‘buy and
sell’ up to five days’ holiday a year if they need extra time off, or plan not
to take their entitlement. Managers have access to stress seminars, and regular
feedback months ensure staff can have their say.

Arup

Business:
Consulting engineers and designers

Number
of employees: 3,000 in UK

Stress-busters:  The company offers a free counselling
service available to employees and their families to help with work, personal
or financial problems. The service has proved very popular and provides a safe
outlet for people to get things off their chest.

Asda

Business:
Food retailing

Number
of employees: 129,000

Stress-busters:  Variety of de-stressing strategies. At its
Great Yarmouth store and Leeds head office there is a visiting masseuse.
Chaplains walk the stores offering a friendly ear to shoppers and staff. Asda
also offers unpaid leave for stressful periods such as ‘half-day, first-day’
for parents whose children have just started school, ‘fertility leave’ and up
to three months’ leave for full-time carers. Staff are also able to take time
off for religious festivals without using any of their holiday entitlement.

Richer
Sounds

Business:
Hi-fi retailer

Number
of employees: 450

Stress-busters:  Subsidised visits to a masseur, a new
stress-busting tip each week and free use of 15 company holiday homes.

Standard
Life

Business:
Insurance

Number
of employees: 13,705

Stress-busters:  Anytime access to free solution-focused
counselling. Workshops to help managers understand, spot and deal with mental
health issues and subsided on-site massage sessions for staff. In demanding
environments such as call centres, Standard Life has increased manager presence
and support, chill-out rooms and desk-based massage.

Comments are closed.