The HSE is getting tough with organisations that fail to take staff stress
seriously, but if its draft standards on managing stress go ahead, will they
prove too hard to enforce? Ben Willmott reports
The Health and Safety Executive’s unprecedented decision to order an NHS trust
to improve the way it tackles stress should ring alarm bells for employers.
West Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust has been given until 15 December to reduce
the stress its staff are under or face legal action under the Health and Safety
at Work Act – and potentially unlimited fines.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued an ‘improvement order’ against
the trust after investigating a written complaint by a former employee about
alleged bullying and the trust’s long-hours culture.
It is the first time the HSE has started enforcement action against any big
employer over stress, and illustrates the priority the body is placing on
dealing with the growing problem.
The move is taken against a backdrop of the HSE’s development of new stress
management standards that will spell out employers’ responsibilities in dealing
with the issue (see ‘What HR needs to know’, below right).
These reflect the HSE’s increasing concern about stress at work, highlighted
by its latest figures, which reveal the number of days taken off due to stress
doubled in just five years from 6.5 million in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2001.
Research just published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development (CIPD) shows stress is the biggest cause of long-term sickness
absence for white collar staff, and the second biggest cause for manual
Mike Emmott, employee relations’ expert at the CIPD, is in no doubt that the
HSE’s action signals a more proactive role for the regulatory body in trying to
reduce the scale of the problem.
"I think this signals a sea change in how stress is tackled. The HSE is
under increasing pressure from the Health and Safety Commission (HSC). Its
chairman Bill Callaghan has impeccable union credentials and stress has become
a political issue.
"The Government is interested in areas where it can demonstrate its
commitment to promoting employee well-being. As a result, there is pressure on
the HSE to do something about stress that goes beyond [just] issuing advice on
While Emmott understands what has led the HSE to take its hardline approach
to tackling stress, he has real concerns about the draft stress management
standards. He believes that in their current form the standards are too
prescriptive, and will be difficult to apply consistently across all types of
The CIPD is to meet the HSE this autumn to discuss the standards and
highlight its concerns about implementation.
The CBI is also unhappy about the HSE’s radical change of approach and remains
unconvinced that the stress management standards are the best way forward.
Janet Asherson, head of health and safety at the CBI, believes the HSE’s
existing best practice stress guidance is sufficient and a regulatory approach
"Most organisations have procedures already embedded through management
systems and personnel policies," she said. "There are concerns that
the hardline enforcement action being taken could create more stress within an
organisation than the [original] problem itself. It is every employer’s right
to challenge the law if it feels it has been wrongly targeted," she said.
Asherson is highly critical of the HSE’s draft management standards.
"Stress is a handy label to cover many of the tensions surrounding modern
life. But it is very difficult to measure and difficult to evaluate the
appropriate action to take.
"We do not believe the draft management standards published recently
are founded on science. They contain subjective score levels that are far
higher than most employee satisfaction results on any employment issue. I would
like to know if, as an organisation, the HSE would pass these standards."
Christine Owen, head of health management consulting at Mercer Human
Resource Consulting, agrees the HSE’s latest move places a significant added
burden on employers.
"It is no easy task to develop a practical process to assess workplace
stress, which is why the HSE has taken so long to issue guidance on the
matter," she said. "But there is a real danger that employers could
undertake an isolated stress audit and identify problems but not solutions.
Raising employee awareness of workplace stress without the resources to take
corrective action is likely to stoke the fire and cause employee relations
However, Bob Tyler, HR director at chemical manufacturer Rhodia, thinks the
HSE’s action is a natural progression in the widening of the health and safety
regulatory environment. He is confident his company will be able to comply with
the HSE’s stress management standards and believes good employers have nothing
to fear from a tougher enforcement regime.
Tyler said the HSE’s proactive approach to tackling stress was more in line
with Europe, where work inspectors in France and Germany are already much more
rigorous in how they assess stress in the workplace.
Rhodia has a biannual staff attitudes survey which Tyler believes could be
fine-tuned to ask questions relating to the HSE’s work stressors as part of a
The HSE defended its decision to issue the improvement notice to the West
Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust, stating that one of its priorities is to stop
people getting ill at work through stress.
A spokesperson for the HSE said the trust’s management had reacted
positively to the improvement notice and would be using the body’s draft
management standards to address issues raised. She emphasised the standards
were still at the draft stage and there would be full public consultation on
them next year.
According to the TUC and public service union Unison, the HSE’s tougher
stance on stress is long overdue. Hugh Robertson, head of health and safety at
Unison, said: "The HSE has produced good guidance on how to manage stress
in the workplace and tries to work with employers to help them resolve problems.
If organisations ignore the guidance, the HSE has no alternative but to take
There is one thing that all are agreed on: stress is a serious issue for
both staff and employers and must be tackled. However, the jury is still out on
the best way to do this.
NHS star gradings will include focus on stress
NHS HR director Andrew Foster (right)
would not comment on the specific case of West Dorset but said the NHS took the
issue of stress very seriously.
"We already have a system in place which looks at
stress-related issues as part of the Improving Working Lives initiative, where
external teams of inspectors ask staff focus groups at NHS trusts about various
aspects of their working lives," he said.
He confirmed the Commission for Health Improvement, which is
responsible for setting NHS star ratings, is to include specific questions on
stress in its service-wide staff attitudes survey this winter.
"This would make the focus more explicitly about stress
and consider issues such as workload and management style," said Foster.
What HR needs to know
The HSE is currently piloting draft stress management standards among a
group of 24 private and public sector organisations. As drafted, they are based on the HSE’s six causes of stress,
identified in its guide Tackling Work-Related Stress and cover demand, control,
support, relationships, role and change.
– Organisations satisfy the first three standards (demand, control and support)
if 85 per cent of staff surveyed indicate they are happy with their work in
– The remaining three standards are achieved if 65 per cent of staff
surveyed report they are satisfied
– HSE inspectors are being trained to help them assess stress in the
Once the pilot scheme is finished, there will be a full consultation over