Bristol City Council gets ahead on stress

The
Health and Safety Executive has begun a six-month trial of new stress
management standards, due to be introduced across the country next year. Nic
Paton meets one of the 24 organisations testing the standards

Bristol
City Council has had a stress policy in place since January 2001, but it is
with the arrival of the Health and Safety Executive’s draft stress management
standards that the pace has really picked up.

“When
you mention stress, people historically have either thought of it as a mental
illness, or a figment of the imagination. There is a real polarisation of
views,” says corporate safety manager Paul Fudgell, who is leading the
council’s pilot project.

What
impressed him and managers at Bristol was the fact that the HSE’s standards were
predicated on serious academic research, making them more authoritative.

Following
consultation with the HSE, union representatives and other key stakeholders,
the council decided to become one of the 24 organisations piloting the
standards for the HSE. Once the go-ahead was agreed in principle, it was a
question of finding a suitable group of volunteers.

Managers
were afraid of finding high stress levels in their department so were
reluctant, but after a series of meetings, a team of 50 volunteers from the
council’s neighbourhood housing department agreed. A briefing plan was drawn up
and the volunteers were given a two-stage paper anonymised questionnaire.

The
first stage incorporates a series of fixed questions on the demands on them,
their level of control and support, their office relationships, their role
within the organisation and how the organisation deals with change.

This
is as far as the council has got with the process, but the next stage is for
the information to be fed into the HSE’s analysis tool where it will be
transformed into coloured charts and graphs. Anything below a red line will be
seen as being of issue.

The
second questionnaire, which may not be needed if everything is satisfactory, is
designed to tackle areas of concern, and includes a range of more detailed
questions.

“It
relies heavily on consultation with staff. Once the analysis is done, focus
groups will be formed to review performance against the management standards,”
says Fudgell.

Managers
have a basket of tools they can select from to help them draw up and implement
action plans.

Monitoring
and reviewing is most likely to be carried out through conventional audits,
employee review meetings and reviewing of the risk assessment process. “If this
is rolled out across the authority, we will need to do a limited amount of
auditing of the tools,” says Fudgell.

He
says it is likely the pilot might initially lead to an increase in the number
of reported cases of stress, as stress is more readily identified.

The
HSE standards are useful because they provide “one of the few true benchmarks”
in this area. “But you need to be aware that they will not in themselves
protect you from civil litigation. This is not an end in itself, just the
beginning,” he suggests.

Bristol
City Council’s corporate safety team consists of Fudgell, a senior safety
adviser, nine advisers, two secondees and some administrative staff.

While
it is a separate department, as it has an enforcement as well as an advisory
role for the council’s 18,000 staff. It is located within the HR department,
which is led by director Robert Britten. The occupational health department is
led by Pauline Davey.

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