The successful management of stress in the workplace relies
on an effective policy. But any policy must go beyond simply paying lip service
to the problem – it must be fully integrated into the organisation, by Dr
A major campaign to tackle work-related stress was launched by the European
Agency for Safety and Health at Work on 2 July 2002. This is the first time a
Europe-wide stress campaign has taken place, and it is clearly needed.
According to the Third European Survey on Working Conditions, 28 per cent of
workers, or 41.2 million people, across the EU’s 15 member states experience
work-related stress.1 Furthermore, it is estimated that the total cost of
stress across the EU amounts to approximately £13bn.2 In the UK alone, the
Health and Safety Executive estimates that 6.5 million working days are lost
each year as a result of stress-related illnesses, costing industry about
So do British organisations have a strategy in place to address this
challenge? Unfortunately not, it would appear.
Research by the Industrial Relations Service in 1999 reported that only 21
per cent of organisations had a written policy on stress in place.4 Similarly,
the TUC found in its research that only 31 per cent of organisations surveyed
in the UK report having implemented a policy on stress. Furthermore, when the
Industrial Relations Service questioned safety representatives about the
success of such a stress policy, only 25 per cent felt it had been partly or
Clearly, a strategic policy on stress must form the cornerstone for any
action that is taken to address stress within an organisation. Without such a
policy, there is a danger that any initiatives aimed at tackling stress will be
reactive, and that the responsibilities of management and staff for addressing
stress will not be made clear. However, developing and implementing a stress
policy is unlikely to be an easy task, and will require a great deal of time
and commitment from stakeholders across the organisation.
There are a number of general principles that should be followed when
developing a policy on stress. First and foremost, it is essential that the
development and implementation of the policy be based upon a partnership
Personnel from an organisation’s occupational health and/or health and
safety department must take a key role in putting together a stress policy, and
in ensuring that their technical expertise is used to its full advantage.
However, it is important that stakeholders from other areas of the organisation
have input into the policy.
There are at least three good reasons for adopting this approach.
First, such stakeholders may have greater expertise than OH and safety professionals
in relation to certain areas of knowledge on stress. For example, an
organisation’s legal department may be more knowledgeable on how to interpret
the legislation relating to stress.
Second, such stakeholders are likely to have a responsibility for ensuring
that the policy is integrated into the business, and will therefore require a
good understanding of the way in which the policy should be interpreted.
Finally, the stress policy may impact upon, or overlap with, other
organisational policies and practices, and therefore the ‘owners’ of such
policies need to be consulted, to ensure that all policies and practices are
Steps need to be taken to ensure that the partnership approach works in
practice. All stakeholders need to be clear about what their role is in the
development and/or implementation of the policy, and how their role fits in
with the roles of other stakeholders. Arguably the best way to achieve a
partnership approach in practice is to establish a steering committee early on,
and to hold regular meetings, which allow everyone the opportunity to voice
their opinions and to provide input into the policy from the very beginning.
Stakeholders who might be invited to take part in the steering committee
include personnel from human resources and the organisation’s legal department,
representatives concerned with equal opportunities and industrial relations,
and trades unions.
While ensuring that a democratic approach is taken, it is also important
that there is one key individual who acts as chair of the steering committee,
and who ultimately has the final say on decisions. Without this individual,
there is a danger that conflicts between stakeholders will be allowed to
escalate, and progress on the development of the policy hindered. Furthermore,
this one individual can act as a focal point for any queries or comments
stakeholders may have in between steering committee meetings, thereby
facilitating communication throughout the policy development process.
Ideally, personnel from the OH or health and safety departments should hold
this key role, in order to ensure that the decision-making process is informed
by the latest technical knowledge and expertise.
Selling the policy
The second principle in the development of a stress policy is to ensure that
it is ‘sold’ to the business. Successfully influencing senior and middle
management of the need for a policy is likely to be a key factor in determining
the efficacy of the policy once implemented.
If senior management holds a cynical or suspicious view of the policy, then
it is quite likely that such attitudes will be passed down through the
management chain. Consequently, line managers, who will ultimately hold much of
the responsibility for ensuring that the policy is implemented effectively
within their own departments, are unlikely to feel encouraged to take their
The most effective method for achieving buy-in to the policy is likely to
differ across organisations, and will be influenced by the culture and politics
within each organisation. One way of selling the policy that may prove useful
in some organisations is through the development of a sound business case. This
can outline the cost of stress for the business, for example through increased
sickness absence, turnover and litigation, and reduced productivity. One method
for determining the costs of sickness absence has been proposed by Bevan and
Hayday (2001), 6 and may prove useful as a mechanism for convincing management
that it cannot afford to ignore the issue of stress.
For other organisations, the ‘stick’ approach towards influencing management
may not be effective. It may be that statements involving the word ‘stress’,
and which are aimed at instilling a certain amount of fear in management, will
simply fall on deaf ears. Such organisations may respond more encouragingly to
a ‘carrot’ approach, in which the positive benefits of a healthy workforce are
emphasised, and less contentious words are used.
In such circumstances, it may be more appropriate to talk about a
‘well-being’ policy. Provided the key principles of the policy are the same as
those for a stress policy, and management and staff are clear about their roles
for improving well-being – or preventing stress – it should not matter how the
policy is marketed. The important issues are that there are procedures and
services in place, which prevent and manage stress, and that management and
staff are encouraged to comply fully with the policy.
Whatever method is used to sell the policy to the business, the time and
commitment required to achieve buy-in should not be underestimated. While the
process of gaining buy-in may delay the development of the policy, it is one
step that must not be overlooked.
Once it has been achieved, representatives from management and staff should
be invited to take part in the steering committee. Their role is important in
making sure the policy is user-friendly, and feasible on a day-to-day level.
They will be well placed to comment on whether the demands placed upon both
management and staff, in respect to their responsibilities in implementing the
policy, are realistic in the light of day-to-day business pressures. They may
also play a significant role in helping to sell the policy to their colleagues
in the business, reassuring them that it is both useful and practicable.
Objectives of the policy
The policy should fulfil at least four objectives:
– To communicate the organisation’s commitment to managing stress and
– To raise awareness and understanding of stress
– To clarify managers’ and employees’ roles in preventing and controlling
– To communicate the organisation’s procedures and resources for preventing
and managing stress
To succeed, the policy must use language and terminology that is appropriate
for the organisation, and which is easily understood. The policy must also
complement the organisation’s other policies and procedures, such as
harassment, absence management, and working time policies. And clearly, the
policy must be legally compliant.
The requirement of health and safety, and employment legislation, such as
the Working Time Regulations (1998), the Disability Discrimination Act (1995),
and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), must all be
incorporated into the stress policy.
For example, in line with health and safety legislation, the policy must
advocate the use of risk assessments for stress across the organisation.
Consequently, the policy must focus not only on individual approaches to
managing stress, but also on organisational approaches, including the
identification and management of the root causes of stress at work.
Implementing the policy
Following sign-off of the policy by all stakeholders, it should be
implemented across the business. This is likely to be the most challenging
step. All too often, well-developed policies are resigned to becoming little
more than pieces of paper gathering dust in staff or management manuals. The
policy must go beyond simply paying lip service, and must be fully integrated
into the business and its day-to-day procedures.
There are at least three ways of facilitating this integration. First, the
policy must be communicated effectively to all. The most appropriate
communication media for each organisation, such as manuals, posters, electronic
mail, paper briefings, intranet, articles in newsletters, and team briefings,
should be used to inform staff and management of the policy.
Second, a number of products and services should support the policy, for
example, a staff or management handbook on stress, tools for risk assessing
stress, a confidential counselling service, and effective rehabilitation
services to support those staff who are absent from work as a result of a
Some organisations may already have such services in place, and will
therefore be able to utilise the policy as a means of bringing together, and
communicating, the products as a whole. Other organisations may need to spend
time developing such services, to ensure that management and staff have the
tools they need to prevent and control stress effectively. It is often
advisable in such circumstances to delay the implementation of the policy until
such services are available, to ensure that the policy has maximum impact from
Finally, systems should be put in place for encouraging management and staff
to fulfil their responsibilities in the prevention and management of stress.
For example, compliance with the stress policy could be included as a
measurable objective within a manager’s appraisal. This would involve, among
other things, management maintaining records of all the risk assessments for
stress they have carried out, and documenting ways in which they have supported
the rehabilitation of staff who are absent from work with stress-related
Organisations may wish to consider initially piloting the policy across a
number of departments, prior to rolling it out across the entire company. This
helps to ensure that the policy is indeed user-friendly, and will provide an
opportunity for testing out some of the products and services that support it.
Once the policy on stress has been successfully implemented, it is important
that it is evaluated on a regular basis. This is to ensure that it is based on
the latest scientific thinking and emerging legislation, and to assess whether
it is optimally effective across the business.
The impact of the policy in the short term could be evaluated using measures
of employees’ and management’s levels of awareness of, and reactions towards,
the policy, obtained from staff surveys or focus groups. This will provide
evidence of the improvements that need to be made to the policy, both in terms
of its content and the way it has been implemented.
The longer-term effects of the policy can be assessed in a number of ways,
including a review of changes in stress-related absence levels, performance
levels, and usage rates of the counselling and rehabilitation services.
It should be noted, however, that organisations may initially witness
negative changes in all of these measures in the months following
implementation of the policy, as staff and management become more aware of
their stress levels. However, over time, an effective policy on stress should
lead to reductions in sickness absence levels and improvements in performance
levels, as the procedures in place for preventing and managing stress begin to
Developing a comprehensive, proactive policy on stress can prove
challenging. However, it is a necessary step in ensuring that organisational
initiatives for managing stress are integrated, both with each other and with
Occupational health staff must play a key role in the development process,
in collaboration with their colleagues from related departments. However,
ultimately their efforts can only go so far, and it is management and staff who
must be encouraged to take overall ownership of the policy, by ensuring that
they fulfil their responsibilities within it. Only then, when the organisation
has fully bought in to the policy, can it be deemed to have been wholly
effective in the prevention and management of stress.
1. Paoli P, Merllié D (2000) Third European Survey on Working Condition.
Dublin: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working
2. Cooper C, Cartwright S, Liukkonen P (1996) Stress Prevention in the
Workplace: Assessing the Costs and Benefits to Organisations. Dublin: European
Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.
3. HSE (2001) Tackling Work-related Stress. A Managers’ Guide to Improving
and Maintaining Employee Health and Well-being. Sudbury: HSE Books.
4. Paige J (1999) Work Stress: A Suitable Case for a Code. London: TUC.
5. Industrial Relations Service (1999) Stress at work: a survey of 126
employees. Employee Health Bulletin, 11: 4-20.
6. Bevan S, Hayday S (2001) Costing Sickness Absence in the UK. Brighton:
Dr Claire Welsh is a chartered health psychologist, who through her
business, Equilibrium Consulting, provides tailored solutions for organisations
in the assessment and management of stress. She is co-author (as C Barlow) of
the HSE Report Organisational interventions for work stress: A risk management
approach. She can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com