Changing workplace brings new breed of stressed employees

Two recent reports have once again raised the stress question – just what
should HR be doing?

Occupational stress is labelled the back-pain of the 21st century by HR
professionals managing sickness absence in their organisations.

Ask most employees if they think their work is stressful, and they will tell
you that it is. To say otherwise has become regarded as a confession that you
are not committed to the job.

In the past few weeks, both the Health and Safety Executive and the TUC have
raised the stress issue again. HSE research estimates that 150,000 UK employees
have taken at least a month off sick because of stress-related illness (News, 3
July).

Last week, TUC general secretary John Monks called for employers and unions
to work in partnership to reduce stress in, rather than join the "blame
race".

The world of work has changed significantly in the past 20 years.
Downsizing, the growth of information systems, de-manning and increased use of
contractors, to name a few, have changed what we do and how we do it. Job
security, some would say, is a thing of the past. All these are new pressures, but
do they harm us?

To understand stress is to appreciate how people respond to different
pressures. The right amount of pressure stimulates us to succeed, and this
gives us satisfaction. Pressure only becomes stress when the individual feels
unable to cope with the demands placed on them. This perception varies
considerably from person to person.

The popular wisdom is that work-related stress is the beginning, middle and
end of the problem. But this approach does not take account of the pressures
experienced outside work. If managers believe that the problem is caused by
work and therefore can only be cured at work, they are destined to fail.

The reality, as with many health-related issues, is far more complex. People
go to work not as a blank emotional sheet but with all sorts of pressures upon
them. They then face a different set of pressures in the workplace.

Managers know that they have to do something, but the big question is, what?

The HSE has found that business "would benefit from having more guidance
about work-related stress".

In response, The HSE and the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) have
published guidance to help managers understand stress and take action.

The EEF’s Managing Stress at Work is based on risk assessment. This is, after
all, what is required by health and safety law. The experience of large
companies with strategies to manage stress has been fed into the guidance.

At an EEF conference on employee rehabilitation in May, an occupational
physician from Rolls-Royce highlighted the value of the risk assessment
approach. He reported that initially there was some scepticism about whether
this approach was going to work. Some managers seemed to be more interested in
teaching employees more coping-strategies to deal with stress.

The occupational health team analysed sickness absence data and looked at
one site with about 5,000 employees.

The workforce was divided between two operating units. About 25 per cent of
people managers of one business unit had attended the stress awareness workshop
providing risk assessment training, while about 75 per cent of people managers
in the other unit had not attended.

When sickness absence for stress-related problems, anxiety and depression
were compared between the two business units for 1999 and 2000, there was no
change in the business unit with fewer trained managers, but the other showed a
21 per cent decrease in absence for stress, anxiety and depression.

The problem of stress will never be completely solved, but, as with other
health matters, there are policies and practices that an employer can put in
place to manage this "new" sickness.

By Gary Booton, the EEF’s health and safety manager

The EEF’s Managing Stress at Work costs £17.50, tel: 020-7222 7777  www.hse.gov.uk
 

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