At a time when the Health and Safety Commission has urged trade unions to raise awareness of occupational health issues among their members, it may appear hypocritical that stress-related ill-health is still regarded as a poor relation to chemical poisoning, asbestos or other physical injuries.
Employers often assume it is the employee who is faulty and dismiss suggestions that the employer's systems, management culture or the environment of the workplace could be at fault. But even if we accept this diagnosis, are there any benefits to be gained by improving the lot of the employee at work?
There have been a number of authoritative writers on employee retention and motivation who have demonstrated that money is not the only answer. Staff want to be heard, treated fairly, managed properly, and most of all, valued. This takes time and communication and listening skills. Unfortunately, the pace of business life lends itself to providing excuses and reasons for not engaging in listening, valuing and treating staff fairly.
What evidence do we have to support this and what, if any, is the cost to industry? The out-of-court settlement to Leslie North for stress in August was greeted by a spokesperson from the Institute of Directors with derision. It was quoted in a national newspaper as referring to the settlement as "the litigation and compensation culture gone absolutely barmy".
Ever since the landmark Walker case of 1996, there has been a queue forming from teachers to council employees to many unreported cases of employees seeking compensation for the ill-health effects of workplace stress. It is difficult to see the tide turning and employees returning to putting up with poor work conditions for longer-term security of tenure.
Employers can no longer offer this and the new generation of staff may not want it. They are highly mobile with portable skills so it may be more financially beneficial for employers to channel the efforts expended in fighting claims into assessing risk and removing the causes of workplace stress.
If people are an organisation's strategic advantage, why do some forget to listen, value them and assess the risk to their well being and productivity in the name of expediency?