Stress at Work Comes to the Fore
Management Standards are vital in dealing with the ‘hidden’ workplace crisis
Stress in the workplace is a major issue that still too often remains hidden under a twin-layered cloak of stigma and denial. However, its huge impact upon individuals and importance as a key factor in productivity is being recognised progressively both in Britain and globally.
Modern day methods of working and the growing demands placed upon people on an endless basis thanks to mobile and internet communications mean that stress is as much a factor in health and safety in the workplace as any visible hazard. Unless we pay close attention to job design, work organisation and overall management, there is always a real danger that workers are going to suffer from the excessive levels of stress which lead to mistakes, illness and long-term absence or departure from employment.
It was highly significant that the recent World Day for Safety and Health at Work, promoted by the International Labour Organisation, highlighted workplace stress as its central theme. Marking the day, the ILO published a study, Workplace Stress – A Collective Challenge, which clearly illustrates the magnitude of the problem worldwide; it also evaluates strategies for prevention and effective management, concluding: “The building of a preventive culture is a shared responsibility of governments, employers and workers, health professionals and societies as a whole.”
Cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety
Work-related stress in Britain is quantified in statistics published annually by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). These make for alarming reading and arguably represent only the tip of the iceberg. The latest figures for 2014/15 show that:
- The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 440,000, representing 1,380 out of every 100,000 workers.
- The total number of days lost as a consequence was 9.9 million, representing an average of 23 days per case.
- Stress accounted for 35% of all work-related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health.
- The main factors cited as causes of stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.
HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.” It also points out crucially: “Stress can hit anyone at any level of the business. Recent research shows that work-related stress is widespread and is not confined to particular sectors, jobs or industries. That is why a population-wide approach is necessary to tackle it.”
One in six workers suffer from mental health issues
The true underlying extent is undoubtedly more substantial, given an embarrassed reluctance on the part of some individuals to admit suffering from stress or depression and either overt or covert denial by some employers that such problems could even exist within their organisation.
Speaking to MPs recently at a parliamentary reception, the president of IOSH, Dr Karen McDonnell, stated that one in six workers in the UK suffered from mental health issues such as stress, depression and anxiety. She re-iterated that organisations must ensure work is safe, healthy and supportive. The one-in-six figure reflects the introductory passage to the Mental Health Toolkit for Employers which has just been published by Business in the Community in association with Public Health England. This toolkit is a valuable and timely reference for businesses who recognise the challenges and want to adopt a positive approach which, among other things, will encourage line managers to acquire sufficient knowledge and training so that they can better understand their roles in this highly sensitive area of management.
Management Standards for Work-Related Stress
Clearly, there is a requirement for a framework within which wellbeing policies and procedures relating to stress can be implemented. And in the UK, it exists in the robust form of the HSE’s Management Standards for Work-Related Stress. These exacting standards represent what HSE describes as “a set of conditions that, if present, reflect a high level of health, wellbeing and organisational performance.”
The management standards define “the characteristics, or culture, of an organisation where the risks from work-related stress are being effectively managed and controlled.” The standards cover “six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and wellbeing, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.” They represent the “primary sources” of stress at work.
The six management standards therefore come under the distinctive headings of Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role and Change. Each of these standards requires that systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns. According to HSE, the management standards “demonstrate good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment approach” and allow up-to-date assessment using surveys and other techniques as well as “promoting active discussion and working in partnership with employees.”
HSE concludes that the standards help to simplify risk assessment for work-related stress by identifying the main risk factors, helping employers focus on underlying causes and prevention, and “providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress.”
Management standards at the core of mental wellbeing
Current recommendations by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) put the management standards at the core of its philosophy for mental wellbeing at work. NICE also makes it clear in its recommendations that companies and organisations should “ensure line managers are aware that supporting employee health and wellbeing is a central part of their role, for example by including it in line managers’ job descriptions and emphasising it during recruitment.”
Further initiatives such as the national Workplace Wellbeing Charter and the London Healthy Workplace Charter provide an opportunity for employers and organisations to show their intent and commitment towards health and wellbeing in the workplace. Both schemes embrace the need for commitment, planning, strategy and structure with achievements recognised through the acquisition of charter status. There are currently around 1,000 organisations with national charter status in England and almost 100 accredited in the London scheme.
In all cases, the management standards provide employers and organisations with a ready-made framework for workplace stress management. They are at the core of mental wellbeing policy and the evidence is clear that they can have a huge commensurate benefit to the business ‘bottom line’.
Steve Bennett is the Director of Safety Delivery. Give him a call on 0208 408 1560 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how your business or organisation can manage work-related stress, implement the management standards, and achieve recognition and accreditation.