The unprecedented decision by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to order
an NHS trust to address workplace stress has sparked a predictable
confrontation between employers and unions.
West Dorset Hospitals NHS trust has been given until 15 December to improve
the way it identifies and addresses stress in the workplace – or risk unlimited
fines under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
It is the first time the HSE has started enforcement action against any
large employer in the UK over stress, and it signals a fundamental change in
how the issue is tackled.
The radical shift in approach reflects the HSE’s increasing concerns over
stress. These are highlighted by its own figures, which show the number of days
taken off due to the condition has doubled over a five-year period from 6.5
million in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2001.
The CBI, in particular, is unhappy about the HSE’s new hardline approach, as
well as the draft management standards the regulatory body is developing to
spell out employers’ responsibilities when dealing with the issue.
In the union corner, the TUC and Unison have welcomed tougher enforcement
action on stress, saying it is long overdue.
However, the one issue that employers and unions agree on is that stress is
a serious problem. It increases absenteeism and staff turnover and reduces
productivity, as well as wrecking the quality of employees’ lives.
The HSE is doing its best to come up with a workable method for reducing
stress at work. It has emphasised that its draft management standards are a
‘work in progress’ and has encouraged employers to provide feedback. It is also
piloting the standards among 24 private and public sector organisations to see
if they can be applied practically. Once that is completed, it has announced
its intention to launch a formal consultation.
HR professionals, who will ultimately be at the forefront of ensuring their
organisations meet these standards, should take advantage of the HSE’s consultative
approach to ensure their views are heard.
By Ben Willmott