National Stress Awareness Day

By Rob Vondy, Head of Stress Policy at The Health and Safety Executive 

As we recognise National Stress Awareness day, this anniversary is like no other given the impact of the global pandemic.

Work-related Stress is a priority health topic for HSE and features prominently within its Health and Work Strategy. The most recent statistics (2018/19) highlight the scale of the problem, showing that 602,000 workers across Great Britain have suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the last year, and were the cause of 54% of all working days lost to ill health (12.8 million days). These statistics do not yet account for the potential effects of Covid-19, which is having a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce.

HSE is playing a key role in contributing to wider Government guidance to help employers and employees in making workplaces Covid secure, and in managing the impact on mental health and wellbeing. The guidance includes a Covid risk assessment that focuses on assessing mental health and wellbeing.

So, what exactly is ‘stress’ and what causes it?

There are a number of definitions for the term ‘stress’, but HSE defines it as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.

Our definition makes a distinction between ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’, as the latter can act as a motivator and can be considered good for us. However, when this pressure builds and becomes excessive over a sustained period, with little or no recovery time, stress can develop. If stress is not managed or dealt with, it can lead to serious mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health conditions including stroke, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart conditions and obesity.

Primarily, work-related stress has been linked with sectors like education, health and social care, local authorities and government departments, but it has become more prevalent in businesses across all sectors, whether small, medium or large.

Choosing the right approach for your business

HSE places its focus on supporting an organisational approach to preventing and effectively managing workplace stressors as part of a holistic approach in tackling stress, mental health and wellbeing. With rising levels of work-related stress, there has been an increasing focus on developing wellbeing solutions. While initiatives that support wellbeing are welcome in providing some value to the individual worker, they alone are unlikely to address the root cause of organisational workplace stressors. These stressors not only impact on the health and wellbeing of the workforce, they manifest in low morale, lack of motivation, reduced trust and confidence and increasing levels of sickness absence. This is likely to have an adverse effect on business performance, productivity and competitiveness.

Managing organisational workplace stress

Employers have a responsibility to take health risks as seriously as safety. HSE is proactively reaching out to employers to raise awareness of their legal duty to assess the risk from work-related stress, promoting practical measures that businesses can take to prevent and manage work-related stress.

If you identify work-related stress as an issue within your business, the key thing to do is act. HSE has produced a specific piece of guidance, a “Talking Toolkit”that is designed to help managers have open conversations with employees to identify concerns and to jointly agree actions to prevent workplace stressors arising. This represents a vital first step towards preventing work-related stress and developing the actions that will help employers to demonstrate their intentions to seek compliance with the law.

The toolkit is not, by itself, enough to make an employer compliant, however, it helps to identify potential stressors and the need to tackle them, as far as is reasonably practicable. This complements HSE’s primary tool for undertaking a stress risk assessment, namely the Management Standards (MS) stress risk assessment approach.

This focuses on six key conditions of work that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates. They are:

-              Demands: workload, work patterns and the work environment.
-              Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
-              Support: the encouragement and resources provided.
-              Relationships: promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
-              Role: whether people understand their role within the company.
-              Change: how organisational change is managed and communicated. 

To support employers and employees in undertaking the MS stress risk assessment, HSE has produced a workbook that provides step by step guidance on implementing the process.

These tools help employers focus on the underlying causes of workplace stressors and the practical steps that will help to prevent them. HSE promotes strong leadership, effective and engaged management and a commitment to worker involvement in identifying and preventing work-related stressors and securing joint agreement in developing practical approaches to mitigate the same.

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