Getting to grips with a British obsession

The HSE’s much talked about stress management standards may lack teeth but employers should not think they can run roughshod over them (page 1). It would be negligence to ignore such guidance given that improved quality of working life and improved performance are so inextricably linked.

After several years of difficult economic conditions, it’s not surprising that stress is seen to be on the increase and is now a British obsession. Employers in many sectors have to do more with less and employees are working longer hours, accepting pay freezes and cuts, while training and development has been trimmed. It’s a difficult context in which to reduce stress.

The standards are a credible framework for HR professionals to use. They highlight the six components of good organisation, job design and management that keep stress in check and enhance productivity. The six areas contributing to work-related stress are: the demands on the individual; the control they have; the support and relationships with others; how well defined and understood their role is and how change is managed and communicated. These areas should not remain the mantra of HR, they should be filtered through the organisation and understood and practised down the line.

There’s a multi-million pound business supporting the treatment and rehabilitation from stress, but much more effort must go in to preventing it in the first place.

Employers in social work, teaching, local government, the armed forces, farming and nursing are blighted by stress largely because they are professions undergoing transformation. It’s not just the job itself that can be stressful but also the amount of change that takes place and an individual’s perception of it.
It’s hard to grow by doing the same things we’ve always done and change is emerging as the only constant feature of business. Logically, then, the risk of stress should be greater.

If you are starting out on the HSE’s guidelines, the first step is to get commitment and participation across the organisation – from senior managers, the board, line managers, employees and employee representatives.

Your stress assessment should include consulting with others to identify the problem, a commitment to take action in partnership with others, and an effort to review your action plans. Visit for detailed advice.

These standards were piloted with more than 20 organisations before they were widely available, and the consultation produced a broad consensus that they were achievable in most workplaces. Ensuring these standards become part of everyday practice should not be a significant stretch for the profession.

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