An HSE scheme to reduce levels of stress in the workplace could lead to confusion for employers and encroach upon the private lives of employees
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has taken the radical step of imposing the first improvement notice for workplace stress.
The notice to West Dorset Hospital NHS Trust means management must reduce the stress its doctors and nurses are exposed to by December. Failure to meet the required 'acceptable' level may lead to an unlimited fine.
Employers are unlikely to welcome such news, and staff may find it leads to further encroachment into their private lives.
This development arises just as new research released by the TUC shows that stressed workers are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease, and will smoke, drink and binge-eat to cope with work-related stress.
Protecting them from stress is a core function of the Health & Safety at Work Act, which places a positive obligation on employers to regularly assess any health risks their staff are exposed to - including workplace stress. However, it is difficult to detect, and its effects are unpredictable.
The HSE defines it as 'the adverse reaction to excessive pressure or other types of demands… [that] arise when they worry they cannot cope'. But employers will struggle to distinguish this from stress caused in the personal lives of their staff, particularly as the two are often intertwined. Physical or mental symptoms such as depression, fatigue, anxiety or eating disorders, can be both the cause or the effect of workplace stress. For employers to ensure safe stress levels for staff, they will need increased access into their employees' private lives.
The pilot project, launched by the HSE this year, encourages employers to carry out regular 'six-point test' staff surveys. An early draft indicates 85 per cent of staff must agree they can cope with the demands of their jobs, and have an adequate say in their role as well as the necessary support. A further 65 per cent must say they understand their roles, and feel they are consulted about organisational changes. Businesses that fall below these thresholds will have to reduce stress levels to avoid action by the HSE.
Of the approximate 3.2 million businesses in the UK, 99 per cent have less than 50 staff. This pilot could have a severe impact on them, as they will face an extra financial burden and