Guidance on managing stress in the workplace

A new set of standards aims to offer businesses a more simplified, yet significantly improved, approach to managing stress in the workplace. Sadie Hopson reports.

The taboo of mental health results in a lack of understanding of what stress is and how to tackle the problem. Stress is the body’s natural response to a number of factors, but in the workplace the trigger is predominantly unremitting pressure. There is ambiguity about how to reduce the risk of stress as it is a subject open to interpretation.

Our situation, mood, environment and personality are all factors that affect how we react to a situation and manage the pressures placed on us. Stress is a subjective experience, where one individual’s stress is another’s oasis of calm. This makes stress difficult to regulate and assess for risks, and makes it problematic to ascertain accountability. New standards for professionals providing stress services should help employers get sound advice on how to manage stress at work.

The British Standards Institute (BSI), in association with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Nottingham University, the CBI, Canada Life and Aviva Insurance, European Union trade unions, Working for Wellbeing, and the International Stress Management Association (ISMA UK), have been developing three new standards that are focused on the management of workplace stress.

In response to demands for formal regulation, these standards set the benchmark for best practice in stress management within a structured framework. These Publicly Available Specifications (PAS) – PAS 1010, 1011 and 1012 – will sit alongside established standards developed by the BSI, such as ISO 14001 and PAS 220-223, and will pave a clear and quality-controlled route for the future.

As formally recognised standards in stress management, they meet the growing need for continuous improvement, risk mitigation and corporate stability, allowing businesses to meet legislative requirements, operate responsibly, promote sustainability and meet the expectations of their shareholders, not to mention improve the health of their workforce.

Learning curve

Working for Wellbeing is the body responsible for the administration, assessment and quality of the training programme for these standards, which is accredited by ISMA UK. To date, practitioners in stress management could have a range of different qualifications or accreditations. The HSE Management Standards have provided comprehensive guidance and advice on the best ways to manage stress, yet there has still been a level of uncertainty regarding the quality of delivery and a subsequent method for quality control. The new standards are an opportunity for specialists from a range of respective backgrounds to build on existing knowledge, including the HSE Management Standards and Management Competencies, and employ a certified and consistent approach to stress management.

The multi-disciplinary training presupposes that participants have individual skills and strengths, while the courses provide a framework for delivery and a support network for best practice, with ISMA-UK-accredited service providers.

quotemarksThe new standards and training packages will provide employers with a trusted source of supply for stress management services and give the certified professionals the peace of mind that their service delivery meets the standards required.”

Training covers the three PAS standards across their respective distinct areas. PAS 1010 (Organisational Stress) covers the obligations as documented by the HSE and the EU and the ways to implement the PAS 1010 guidelines and undertake a sufficient risk assessment. It is understood that the proposed PAS 1011 (HSE Management Standards and Management Competencies) will aim to cover both the HSE Management Standards and Management Competencies guidelines and reduce pressure in the workplace using this proven model.

The soon to be published PAS 1012 (Resilience, Wellbeing and Returning to Work) is primarily a code of conduct. Accredited practitioners following these guidelines are qualified to offer a professional service to any organisation interested in their particular field of expertise, while not restricting the various types of practitioner and discipline involved in stress management, building resilience and return-to-work programmes.

Practitioners aiming to be included on the exclusive Working for Wellbeing/ISMA UK register can combine any of these three courses as they choose. Practitioners who specialise in just one area, for example, risk assessment or one-to-one interventions, will be accredited and registered accordingly. However, any individual who undertakes all three training programmes will be registered as a “master stress practitioner”. This register will be made available to anyone seeking an accredited individual who operates according to these standards.

Unified platform

There is no intention to reinvent the wheel or negate or undermine the work and research already undertaken on stress, but the crucial difference with this programme is that, finally, every service provider, employee and employer will be adopting the same uniform methodology. This increase in quality control and regulation will mean that relevant parties, such as insurance companies, will now be able to identify an audit trail for the steps taken to reduce stress and enforce accountability.

With an estimated £100 billion lost annually to workplace stress and the subject recently overtaking musculoskeletal problems as the top cause for long-term absence, it is likely that the demand for these licensed practitioners will be exceptionally high. Although the standards are being implemented in 2011/12, there has already been high demand among those seeking accreditation and from providers wanting to reap the commercial benefits of being one of the first to be accredited.

Joining the stress management register has not become a prerequisite of offering services in stress management, nor is it a compulsory certification for practice. However, until now there has been no way of assessing the value or efficacy of stress management procedures, undertaken by internal or external service providers, and, accordingly, it has been impossible to monitor or determine a degree of liability.

The new standards and training packages will provide employers with a trusted source of supply for stress management services and give the certified professionals the peace of mind that their service delivery meets the standards required. Further, such service suppliers will be protected by a national administration system that provides an auditable trail of the training and services. For the first time, managing stress in the workplace will become completely transparent.

Sadie Hopson is managing director of stress adviser Euthenia Touch. For more information about the standards and opportunities available to professionals in the field of stress management, contact Working for Wellbeing Ltd, the official ISMA UK training partner.

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