Do we need to legislate against stress?

The Health and Safety Executive recently concluded that one in five
employees is very or extremely stressed, while a study by the TUC` reveals that
stress is a major concern for workplace safety representatives. Are employers
doing enough under self-regulation to combat stress or is it time to legislate?
Compiled by Sarah-Jane North

David Cooper
Director of HR and corporate development, East London and the City
Mental Health NHS Trust

Stress does exist and it exists in significant amounts in the NHS, at all
levels, indeed more so now among general and senior managers than ever before.
I joined the NHS in 1987 and it did not seem so prevalent back then. But
general management in the NHS is now much more like that found in the private
sector. And it is increasing in particular areas, usually where there are staff
shortages or pushes to deal with specific issues.

I feel there is more stress in mental health than in my previous field of
community health. If a child doesn’t get speech therapy for 12 weeks it doesn’t
make headlines. But if a patient is discharged and murders then we will be held
accountable for that. People working in mental health live in fear at times
because of the client group they work with.

I have my own opinion about claims that there can be "good"
stress. In my opinion, life without stress would be fantastic.

I also believe that the vast majority of stress is created by other people.
About 90 per cent of the things I get asked to deal with immediately are not
that urgent. That’s more about wielding power.

The key issue to address is about working in a supported environment. We are
not doing enough locally, regionally or nationally in the NHS to deal with
stress because we are not prepared to accept how much stress exists. For years
we have accepted that our staff will be abused and harassed.

It has even become a comic turn that a district nurse may go to a house and
be flashed at. It’s part of NHS folklore. What we need is zero tolerance.

Dr Rob Briner
Senior lecturer in organisational psychology, Birkbeck College, London

Stress is not really a meaningful, medical, scientific concept. The cases
that have gone to court are about specific conditions such as depression or
nervous breakdowns.

These cases involve people who have found it hard to cope, have repeatedly
told their employer about their problem and the employer has handled the
situation incredibly badly. It is not the work itself that is the problem, but
how the employee’s concerns are not addressed. It is also my impression that
lawyers use the fear factor to make organisations feel they have to do things
about stress when in fact much of what they do will not prevent stress at all.

The law is used to scare people and that is not the best basis from which to
encourage employers to behave properly.

Steve Harvey
Director of people, profit and loyalty, Microsoft UK

Yes, stress exists. It’s a bit like personal training at the gym; you have
to stress a muscle before it can grow. The important part of the deal is that
the muscle then has to have recovery time. In the workplace, a degree of stress
can be a good thing as long as it is not 100 per cent of the time.

Employers could always be doing more to put the stress into context, and as
long as there is recovery and fun time within the work environment, it should
be manageable. At Microsoft, we make sure that people take their holidays, we
provide external help for employees in the form of an Employee Assistance
Programme, if people feel their life is getting out of hand.

Stress is a very individual pressure, so I do not believe there should be
laws in relation to it on employers.

Terry Gorman
Personnel director of Nottinghamshire County Council, president of local
government personnel group Socpo

I agree that stress does exist in the workplace and indeed is now one of the
two most common causes of absence, alongside musculosketal problems. It is
difficult to say whether it is increasing in real terms but what is clear is
that more managers are now prepared to accept that it does exist so its
presence is more open.

In local government I believe it is being tackled with training and in-house
counselling teams. More could be done to ensure proper risk assessments are
undertaken and that managers are alert to early signs of stress when involved
with their staff.

The drivers for change are the need to reduce absence in line with
government targets, the business benefits and the costs of getting it wrong.
There is no need for legislation.

Owen Tudor
Senior health and safety policy officer, TUC

Stress is the major health issue facing workers in Britain – union safety
reps say so, employer sickness absence surveys say so, and government
statistics prove it. People are working too hard and too long, without the
resources they need. Although weak, the Working Time Regulations are having a
minor but measurable impact on hours, but the pressure to work harder is being
kept up and people who can cope for a while are beginning to burn out.

The work ethic is out of control, and we need a new approach to the
work-life balance. Unions and employers have agreed on a programme of action
through the Health and Safety Commission. We have agreed that stress can be a
health and safety problem, and that health and safety laws can be used to
manage stress.

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