How will the opposition tackle stress?

John
Charlton takes a look at what the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party
are planning to do to beat workplace stress

Policies
on stress at work may not win the next general election, but it is an issue
that’s rising up the political agenda of the main opposition parties.

Both
the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties are looking at the issue of
stress at work, and plan to give details of their proposed policies in 2004.
They are likely to be part of their overall policies on health, safety and
productivity strategies.

Conservative
view

“We
certainly take the issue of stress at work very seriously,” says Conservative
trade and industry shadow minister, Tim Yeo. “We have a group of HR experts
working on this and related issues and they will advise us.

“The
party’s policies on this issue are being defined and will develop in 2004 when
details will come out. This is a policy in progress.”

Liberal
Democrat view

The
Liberal Democrats are also formulating policy on the stress issue. Former trade
and industry spokesman Vincent Cable, who became chief treasury spokesman on 12
October, says: “We have sought to make health and safety standards a central
theme. Stress is part of that bigger picture.

“We
have a working group on important legislation and this issue will be considered
by it, and policy will emerge from the working group in time for our Spring
Conference in 2004.”

Neither
would be drawn on any specific policies or ideas they may have for combating
stress at work. But both believe it is primarily an issue that should be dealt
with by employers, staff and safety representatives – although Cable says that
union representatives should also be involved.

Employer
role

Neither
party believes that employers should be compelled to develop and adopt
stress-reducing policies.

“I
doubt it’s practical,” says Cable. “It is not sensible in any event to make too
much use of the law and regulation in an area where definition is difficult and
enforcement virtually impossible.”

Targets

Although
the Government has set targets to reduce cases of ill health at work – last
year, it said it wanted 80,000 fewer cases of work-related ill health – neither
of the men believe that setting targets for reducing stress-related absenteeism
is wise.

"I
am sceptical about the value of targets of this kind," says Cable.

Six
months ago, his party investigated levels of stress and absenteeism in
government departments by putting parliamentary questions to the Government.

“Interestingly,”
says Cable, “the treasury was the most ‘stressed-out’ Government department.”

MPs’
stress

Both
parties’ HR departments deal with the issue of stress at work as standard
practice.

But
politicians’ lives can be stressful in the extreme. For example, in January
2000, Cheltenham Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones was injured, and local
councillor Andrew Pennington killed, by a sword-wielding constituent.

Long
and unsocial hours are also common causes of stress at work, and these were
long the norm until January 1 this year when parliamentary hours were cut to
make MPs’ working lives more family-friendly.

Stress-busters

But
an MP’s job is one that many know about, and perhaps this is why Cable thinks
they must shoulder the burdens that come their way. "Most MPs and
councillors have a stressful life, but they have chosen it," Cable says.

He
wouldn’t say whether he has his own stress-buster, but Yeo certainly does. He
practices transcendental meditation, and also plays golf off a nine handicap.

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