Legal Q & A: HSE Management Standards for Stress

By Richard Yeomans, employment practice, Manches Solicitors

Q Why has the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) published a new pilot
project on stress management?

A The HSE estimates that up to 13.4 million working days are lost
each year as a result of stress at work, and that this affects up to one in
five workers at a cost of up to £3.8bn to UK businesses. These figures prompted
the Government (via the HSE) to introduce a pilot project called Management
Standards for Stress.

The HSE is inviting employers to try the project and return any feedback by
November. It will then decide whether and how to launch the standards formally
next year. For example, they may form part of a code of practice which will be
taken into account when deciding whether an employer has breached health and
safety legislation.

Q What are the standards?

A The HSE has set out six management standards aimed at reducing
workplace stress. They include:

1 Ensuring staff can cope with job demands

2 Giving staff adequate control over their work

3 Ensuring staff are given support by colleagues

3 Combating unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying

5 Ensuring staff understand their role and responsibilities; and

6 Involving staff in organisational change.

The management standards provide a yardstick against which employers can
gauge their performance in the workplace. If fewer than 85 per cent (for 1 to 3
above) and 65 per cent (for 4 to 6 above) of staff agree the management
standards have been met, your organisation will fail the assessment.

Q Who do the standards apply to?

A The standards do not currently have the force of law and will not
be formally launched until next year. For the time being, they are only part of
a pilot project, and there is no obligation for you to participate in it.

Q How do I include my company in the pilot project?

A You should refer to the HSE website (www.hse.gov.uk), which sets
out a step-by-step approach to carrying out a pilot study within your
organisation.

Q Should I be concerned about complying with the standards?

A Although the management standards are still at the pilot project
stage, this does not mean you should ignore them or the issue of workplace
stress.

Your organisation is already required under existing legislation to tackle
workplace stress. In particular, the Health & Safety at Work Act (HSWA)
1974 imposes a duty of care on employers to look after the safety of their
staff.

Employers can be sued if they breach this duty – for example, by causing
unnecessary stress at work – and the courts can impose fines on employers (up
to £20,000 in the County Court and unlimited fines in the High Court). If the
management standards are formally adopted next year, they will make it easier
for employees to bring claims, and for the HSE inspectors to bring cases to
court.

In addition to relying on the HSWA, workers may bring a range of other
claims if they are exposed to excessive stress in the workplace, such as claims
for personal injury, constructive dismissal and unfair dismissal. All these
claims can lead to substantial awards for damages or compensation, and
defending them will often involve significant management time and legal costs.

Proactive employers, which use the management standards as a tool to measure
stress in the workplace and act on the results, are likely to be in a better
position to defend themselves against legal claims. This applies now, even
though any code is not due to be introduced until next year.

As well as reducing the risk of legal action, tackling stress may also
create economic benefits for your organisation by reducing sickness absence and
staff turnover, and increasing productivity.

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