Driving down stress

A residual risk associated with work place stress is inevitable, and a healthy degree of stress is recognised to be is a positive motivator. Managing workplace stress is a fine balance between the demands placed on an employee and their ability to cope with them.

Recent statistics from the Health and Safety Executive indicate:

– About half a million people experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill

– Up to five million people in the UK feel ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed by their work

– Work-related stress costs society more than 4bn every year

– 13.4 million working days are lost in the UK due to work-related stress (HSC 2001). From a recorded total of 33 million days of absence, this represents 40 per cent

– In the engineering sector, this is an increase of 100 per cent in the last five years.

The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to assess their employees’ work, as well as the workplace and this must include psychological hazards.(1)

The increasing profile for work-related stress requires assessment as to what is and what is not tolerable to the individual employee, or work group as a whole. Risk assessments must be to a standard that provides sufficient qualitative evidence to initiate discussions of stress related problems at work. They must also provide an informed basis for managing those problems through a risk reduction plan (Cox et al).(2)

Cox believes that a process which is ‘good enough’ rather than ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ means that it is fit and sufficient for purpose. It must inform, guide and support subsequent risk reduction.

By undertaking risk assessments, baselines will evolve, and where individual employees cannot cope with assessed safe levels of stress, alternative arrangements must be pursued.

Following the recent release of a web- based, paper-free risk assessment system for workplace stressors, Group Lotus – a leading niche automotive engineering and manufacturing company – has just completed a pilot audit, assessing a cross section of its workforce, and is delighted with the results.


Group Lotus, which was receptive to innovative ideas relating to a risk assessment tool, piloted the Health @ Work Indicator (H@WI), on behalf of manageabsence limited, a local company with experience of operational and workplace stress management.

The H@WI quantifies work-related stress risks using an attitudinal audit of exposure to work place stressors within four main categories; job design, work relationships, work environment and contractual issues.

Awareness training had been provided by the company’s OH service to raise both the awareness of individual stress and workplace stressors. This decision had been taken following assessment of anecdotal evidence of existing issues and other employee data including absence figures, staff turnover and referrals OH. Following the initial training workshops, a process was required for quantifying stress risk and prioritising future action.

The service offered by manageabsence limited met this need. The human resources team and Ken Ferguson, the principal OH nurse, agreed to undertake a pilot audit using the H@WI tool.

The question areas, validated by research, cover the full range of generic issues and there was flexibility to customise question sets to company specific issues. Once the risk categories are identified, a recommended management pathway for action is linked to it. These pathways are dependent upon each risk category and will provide a standardised management approach across the whole company.

The pilot

The working party identified staff from within three groups, by random selection. The aim was for OH to identify and prioritise areas of concern and to compare and contrast results.

While the H@WI could be facilitated via a company intranet, the company decided against this option. For the purpose of the pilot, all nominated employees were given written instructions, password entry details, a time within which to complete the questionnaire and an opportunity to meet with OH for further information throughout the assessment period.

A two-week period was agreed for completion of 60 questionnaires and the nominated employees completed these via direct access to the internet using workstations within the workplace.

On completion of the user friendly ‘on line’ questionnaires, the information was collated by the manageabsence.com software. Following analysis of the results, these were discussed in detail with the Lotus Group nominated representatives.

Risk categories are identified as follows:

Category 0 – no obvious risk.

Category 1 – risk in one section

Category 2 – high risk in one section

Category 3 – overall risk significant

Category 4 – overall risk very high


Of the 60 candidates selected, 34 valid assessments were completed within the given timescale, which represented an overall 57 per cent response.

In one of the work groups, which had an opportunity for a more detailed briefing, the response rate was 100 per cent.

Group Lotus chose to encourage staff to complete the self-assessment questionnaire and not to make it mandatory.

The 60 randomly-nominated participants were from work groups of unequal size, and the group that had been more thoroughly prepared achieved a full 100 per cent response. This confirmed that the training of key people prior to the undertaking of assessments is necessary to gain a high response rate.

A comprehensive report was prepared and presented to the working party. Results were reported in table format under the following headings:

– Overall Assessment Profile

– Assessment by Category of Risk

– Assessment by Department

– Assessment by Name

Managing workplace stress discusses sample size for survey populations.(3) In this instance, albeit the numbers were small, data was available by work group, department and individual employee, thus allowing any interventions to be based on facts rather than assumptions.

The unique employee payroll number identified individual assessments and where significant and specific work place stressors were highlighted, analysis was discussed in general terms with the HR manager. The confidential, individual documentary evidence, however, was only given to the OH nurse for ongoing action. The senior HR manager had agreed this process in advance.

Maintaining confidentiality is crucial to the successful outcome of the process. While external consultants can undertake the whole process, there is an advantage to working closely with an existing in-house OH service. This can be an employed or contracted service, but one that will provide the ongoing continuity.

Results confirmed existing anecdotal evidence and identified and quantified known stressors that were adversely impacting upon the employees.

The analysis of the assessments also identified a number of individual employees who perceived themselves to be regularly exposed to workplace stressors, and potentially at high risk of work-related ill health.

Risk reduction

Risk categories were quantified from the assessments and appropriate management pathways for action agreed by the company were put into place.

These pathways are linked to each category of risk and standardised throughout the company to ensure all staff members are treated equally.

Each management pathway is designed to allow line managers, health professionals and HR managers to communicate with the individual or group of employees to agree action plans and remedial action.

It is essential that regular reviews and re-sits of the questionnaire (H@WI) be conducted in order to identify a positive reduction of risk.

This structured process will assist both individuals and the employer. The employee will have their issues addressed and the employer will be able to demonstrate that issues are being addressed and that any change or improvements are being monitored.

At Lotus, further joint working of the HR team, health and safety and OH specialists will allow a clear risk reduction strategy to be developed.
The risk reduction strategy and action plan is effectively a change process and close management will be required to ensure its’ effectiveness.

Repeat assessments will provide a process for ongoing discussion and evaluation.


The H@WI risk assessment pilot has successfully audited the workplace stressors and categorised the degree of risk of the participants.

Appropriate management pathways have been produced, which, if adopted, will allow the organisation to prioritise remedial action to reduce risks of both work-related stress and absence.

The HR team and the OH nurse were delighted that documentary evidence of known issues had been identified from the results of the H@WI tool. Moreover, they had been achieved quickly, easily and independently.

By integrating the use of the H@WI process with their existing policies, the company will be able to enhance the management of their work-related stress and establish a proactive system for continuous improvement.

Such an active management system to quantify and manage the levels of work related stress would meet the Health and Safety Executive requirements for employers to actively risk assess and manage work as well as the workplace.

1. Management of health and safety at work regulations, 1999
2. Cox T, Randall R, and Griffiths A, (2002), Interventions to control stress at work in hospital staff. Sudbury: HSE Books
3. Williams, S and Cooper, L (2002) Managing workplace stress. Chichester: Wiley and Sons

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