Stress has always been a second class citizen when it comes to workplace
hazards. But all that is set to change. Eliza O’Driscoll and Heather Falconer
look at the latest initiatives from the HSE
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is about to introduce several
initiatives aimed at placing stress on the same level as other work-related
HSE inspectors are currently being trained to carry out inspections on
stress in the same way as they inspect for other workplace risks and these will
be introduced later this year. "At the moment, a small group of inspectors
has been trained and a more general training course is being rolled out,"
says a spokesperson for the HSE. News of the inspections has been welcomed by
organisations such as the TUC, which have consistently campaigned for a more
structured approach to stress-related hazards in the workplace.
The new assessments will be supported by a new set of management standards,
the first of which are being piloted, and expected to be launched early next
The HSE is also piloting stress audits among local authority environmental
health officers in Humberside. "We are getting the local authority
officers, whom we oversee, to do a similar thing to our inspectors in their
random checks, also using the stress management standards as a guide,"
says the spokesperson. These local authority audits are likely to be rolled out
nationwide next spring.
But what is actually new about the situation from the employer’s point of
view? After all, under the Managing Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999,
employers should be carrying out risk assessments in any case. "It is an
express term [of the employment contract] that the employer should keep a place
of work safe – failure to complete a risk assessment could lead to breach of
the regulations," says employment lawyer Linda Goldman, of ACT Associates.
Nevertheless, a recent survey of 220 employers by Personnel Today magazine and
IRS Employment Review showed that only half had carried out risk assessments
"What is new, is that [the HSE] will be doing inspections on stress and
I think that is a very positive development," says the TUC’s Owen Tudor.
"Trade unions have been keen on this for a long time because we think
stress can be dealt with in the same way as other issues such as manual
The management standards are initially expected to be voluntary rather than
statutory, however the HSE has not ruled out the possibility of an Approved
Code of Practice at a later date.
But Goldman says employers would be wrong to think they can ignore the new
regime at the HSE just because it doesn’t have the weight of the law behind it.
"Once something like [the stress audit] comes up, even though it doesn’t
have statutory force, it is not voluntary. If any employer chooses not to carry
out a risk assessment they had better have a very good reason," Goldman
The HSE has come up with a checklist (see below left) of stress-related
hazards that might put employees at risk – as a basis for both employers to carry
out risk assessments under health and safety law and inspectors checking for
breaches. It is these that will form the basis for the management standards.
However, the HSE may be constructing its new strategy on feeble foundations.
The management standards, only nine of which are being piloted this year based
on the first three stressors, were ‘underpinned’ by research carried out by the
Institute of Employment Studies.
But the authors of the research warned: "The nature of the limited
evidence suggests that it is currently not feasible to issue clear and simple
directives about which stressors are most harmful, at what threshold they
become harmful, how they operate, or what can be done to reduce their
Jo Ricks, principal research fellow at IES and one of the authors, says:
"It is true the evidence is limited, however I don’t think that excludes
developing standards as long as you have a piloting period to check them out
and see how they operate. The fact is, we have to get started on this so we
have to ask what is the best thing we can do? It might not be perfect, but it
is based on the best evidence there is."
However, Ricks is much more unsure about trying to carry out stress risk
assessments. "I do think conducting risk assessments can be quite tricky
in relation to psychosocial hazards for a number of reasons," she says.
She enumerated these in an article in 2000 in the Journal of Occupational
Medicine. They included the difficulties in identifying hazards which are not
always intrinsically harmful, are found everywhere, and often take a long time
to have an effect.
There were also grave problems, she said, pinpointing and extracting the
exact causes of harm and establishing links between hazards and harm, and in
assessing the degree of harm suffered.
"These difficulties suggest that the risk assessment framework is not a
fruitful method for assessing psychosocial risk," she concluded.
"There is a danger that while approaches such as stress audits, based on a
risk assessment approach, will deliver findings, theÉweaknesses of the approach
will fail to deliver the accurate information organisations need if they are to
assess whether or not an intervention is required and what type of approach
will best suit the specific problems identified."
Lack of understanding
The HSE appears not to have heeded its researchers’ advice. In a bid to be
seen to be doing something, it is pressing ahead with a regime which encourages
employers to carry out risk assessments based on the traditional model. With no
real understanding of the complex way in which stress operates in the
workplace, the danger is that everybody will be wasting their time and money.
It seems that health and safety law is adding another layer of complexity to
a problem long-held to be the sole preserve of personal injury lawyers. Many
employers breathed a sigh of relief after the Court of Appeal decision in
Sutherland v Hatton last year, which laid down clear principles for employers
to follow in relation to civil liability. It may have been responsible for
lulling many into a false sense of security, stating as it did that an employer
who offers a confidential advice service, with referral to appropriate
counselling or treatment, was unlikely to be found in breach of duty. Clearly
the decision remains important, given the potential for large sums of
compensation. But it is only a part of the story.
Pamela Carr, occupational health specialist for the London Chamber of
Commerce and Industry, warns: "There has been a complete sea change in the
way we approach stress in the workplace. Employers need to look at their
processes and not just assume that counselling staff will be enough.
"The positive side is that a company can get benefits from approaching
the problem in a structured way such as improved morale, greater productivity
and lower staff turnover which ultimately should increase your bottom
The HSE’s seven stressors
– Demands Are staff
comfortable with the amount of work they have to do or the hours they are
expected to work?
– Control Are staff involved in deciding what work they
do, and when and how they do it?
– Support Are you offering adequate managerial support
to staff, for example with new work or with everyday issues or if they
experience personal problems? Are al l staff properly trained for all the tasks
they are expected to perform?
– Relationships How are relationships conducted in your
workplace? Are there problems with bullying/harassment?
– Roles Are staff clear about what is expected of them?
Are individuals struggling with multiple and/or conflicting roles?
– Change Do you communicate and consult adequately with
your staff about organisational change?
– Culture Do you promote open dialogue between staff and
managers? Do staff feel the organisational culture is sexist or discriminatory
towards ethnic minorities?
Tackling stress – the latest
The HSE recently put out the following
guidance on risk assessments for stress.
Step 1 Identify the hazards
– Good sickness absence data monitoring is key. If a particular
team or unit has high sickness absence, investigate the causes – conditions or
work organisation may be raising stress levels and, in turn, sickness
– Conduct return-to-work interviews to find out why staff are
taking time off for stress
– Talk to your staff and to get them to talk to you. You don’t
need to mention the word "stress". It can be easier just to ask staff
about things that upset them or make work difficult
– Use focus groups to get staff to talk about stress and bounce
solutions off each other
– Conduct exit interviews if staff turnover is high
Step 2 Establish who might be
harmed and why
– Use the seven stressors to group the issues identified in
Step 1 roughly under headings. This is a useful first step in sorting and
prioritising the information you have obtained
Step 3 Develop an action plan
– You can’t tackle everything your risk assessment identifies
at once. Smaller problems which can be solved quickly (for example improving
communication by introducing regular team meetings) are good things to start
with. This should immediately reduce overall stress levels, making it easier to
solve more difficult problems over time. It also demonstrates you are serious
about tackling problems
– When contemplating more costly measures (ie employing extra
staff), consider whether the potential benefits justify the financial cost
– Consult and involve staff when deciding what to do
Step 4 Take action
– You must make practical interventions to reduce the exposure
of your employees to the stressors identified as presenting the greatest risk
– There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to each stressor.
Take a look at HSE’s guidance – how much are you doing towards the guidelines
set out there?
– Look at what other organisations, in particular similar
organisations, have done or are doing. The HSE is currently gathering a
database of case studies to facilitate this
Step 5 Evaluate and share your work
– Try to demonstrate quantitative improvements, for example a
reduction in staff turnover
– After each action, repeat Step 1 to establish whether staff
feel any of the problems have been reduced or eliminated
– HSE would like to see organisations meet, and then go beyond,
the management standards by continuously improving the way they manage
workplace stress. One mechanism for doing this is by sharing good practice –
contributing case studies and training materials to this site or to other firms