Can risk management prevent stress?

Risk management has long been applied to prevent physical injury to employees and now there is a growing interest in developing risk management tools to reduce mental stresses in the workplace.

Organisational interventions for work stress: a risk management approach is the title of recent research by the University of Nottingham Business School, commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive. It attempts to show how organisations can assess workplace risks to mental health and put in place policies to reduce the hazards.

But as HSE policy adviser Steve Lee accepts, it is a complex area.

“Many employers are a bit confused about how to assess risks in the area of workplace stress. But there is a growing body of knowledge on possible sources of stress and what can be done at management level to tackle problems.”

But he adds that there is no “one size fits all” approach and that policies must be tailored to individual organisations.

He argues against employers sending managers on badly designed stress awareness courses. “Some of these courses tell delegates that some stress is good for employees, which we feel is a dangerous message,” he says.

Jo Rick, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, agrees that it is still an under-developed science.

“The main issue is whether you can transfer risk assessment tools for physical risks to the area of mental health.”

For example, if someone suffers a burn in the workplace it is evident what caused the burn: “But if someone suffers from stress-related depression the factors causing it can be many and various.”

She argues that there is significant potential for the use of risk management techniques in mental health but that more needs to be known about what kind of hazards cause harm.

“Stress models can identify potential hazards but not in the same way as, for example, a noxious gas.”

Another complication, says Lee, is that employees may react in different ways to similar pressures and that factors such as what is going on in an employee’s home life can play a major role.

The report by Nottingham University’s Institute of Work, Health and Organisations, led by Tom Cox, presents ways of applying risk management for work stress and is published as a contribution to the debate rather than a “recipe book” for employers says Ray Randall, one of the report’s authors.

The report includes case studies of organisations that have put risk management frameworks in place. “The case studies show that programmes do not always work perfectly but they provide interesting information on some approaches,” says Randall.

Risk management is split into two parts, assessing what the risks are and putting in place measures to reduce or contain those measures. It is also important to evaluate and monitor policies.

The report lays down five steps for the risk assessment of work stress:

1. Familiarisation. This includes establishing the frameworks and arrangements needed for completing the risk assessment, especially the steering group.

2. Work analysis interviews. These interviews with employee groups build on the information gathered in the familiarisation process concerning the nature of the work and working condition of groups.

3. Assessment survey. A questionnaire of employee groups to quantify exposure to the main stress factors associated with their work and to measure the health of their group.

4. Audit of existing systems. This explores the measures already taken by the organisation, both formal and informal, to deal with stress-related issues.

5. Analysis and interpretation of assessment data. Identifying stress factors and employees’ exposure to them can be made in terms of the proportion of employees reporting problems. This data can be used to summarise health profiles of employee groups and to identify likely risk factors.

Following assessment a risk reduction programme should be put in place, which will often mean improved employee support and the development of other occupational health and welfare services. Education and training are powerful tools.

While this is the responsibility of the steering group, problems can occur when the steering group changes is members. The researchers found that in reality, many of the key issues in planning and implementing risk reduction policies were governed by the culture of the organisation.

The effectiveness of the steering group was increased when it included not only employee representatives but also key decision-makers in the company and those with power over resources.

While the likely cost of risk reduction programmes was often an issue initially, in practice costs were often not as high as had been anticipated.

Many of the changes in the final package were themselves relatively low cost and could be put in place within existing budgets.

The researchers found that “in these cases the risk assessment data had informed and focused existing activities such as organisational development and, in particular, management development and training.”

Some lessons emerged from the case studies:

1. Project champions occupy the key role in risk management initiatives. Project champions were generally from occupational health or health and safety, as the programme seemed to appeal more to these groups than to human resources staff.

2. Senior managers. The support and involvement of senior managers was crucial and usually their backing was secured with the help of the project champion. Establishing the link between good health and good business was essential.

3. Terms and conditions. Establishing the terms and conditions of the project in a document helped formalise the initiative. Although this had no legal status, the discussion of its content and the act of signing by senior managers ensured that the company and project team were working within the same framework and it made sure senior managers were committed to act upon the results of the assessment.

Organisational interventions for work stress – a risk management approach, University of Nottingham Business School for the Health and Safety Executive.

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