The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has launched management standards to help employers tackle workplace stress, but since they are not legally binding, there are claims they won't make any difference.
At more than 13 million working days a year and an estimated cost of 3.7bn a year, work-related stress is the biggest occupational cause of working days lost through injury or ill-health.
The HSE has developed a continuous improvement model to try to tackle the problem, which features a benchmarking tool to help managers gauge stress levels, compare themselves with other organisations and work with employees to identify solutions.
However, unions claim that because the standards are voluntary, they will be ignored by employers.
Mick Reed, health and safety officer at Amicus, said the Government was "running shy" of legislation in the area of health and safety.
"Unless things are backed up by legislation, nothing happens," he said. "The first thing the employer does is turn round and say: 'We don't have to do this - these are just guidelines, this is just voluntary'."
Jane Kennedy, minister of state at the Department for Work and Pensions, said the Government would not make the system mandatory because symptoms of stress exhibited in the workplace do not necessarily all originate there, as staff bring "all sorts of pressures with [them] into work".
Paul Coppin, stress claims expert at law firm Eversheds, has warned employers that despite the voluntary nature of the standards, ignoring them could leave businesses in hot water.
"Technically, these new management standards are only guidelines and do not have the power of legislation," he said. "However, in reality, they will become the benchmark against which employers are judged."
Mandatory or not, Robert Pascall, HR director at the West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust, said the standards offered HR a critical role in developing relationships with staff, unions, representative bodies and the HSE. "HR has got the opportunity to take something like these standards and work with them to make a major improvement on the organisation's performance," he said.
Stress: the figures
- 3.7bn - the cost of work-related stress to society
- 13.4 million - the number of working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2001/2