HSE Message to employers about work-related stress – let’s start the conversation

The recent work-related stress statistics published by HSE seem to have raised some eyebrows given the higher numbers of days lost to work related stress (57% of all days lost to ill health); but for those of us who have been involved in trying to tackle the problem, it wasn’t such a surprise.

We can try to spin the figures - people are more aware of work related stress and its impact on health. We can talk about all the good work we’ve been doing that has reduced the stigma that’s attached to work related stress and mental ill health, making people more confident to report it. We could even say there’s more people in work so obviously there’s going to be more days lost to stress - but each of these statistics relates to an individual being harmed by their work.

Clearly, more needs to be done to address it. For years we have been raising awareness of work-related stress. There has been much spoken about mental health issues, anxiety and depression, as well as the potential physical medical impact, but has there been enough talking about solutions…and particularly the right solutions?

Health and safety legislation requires an employer to do a risk assessment to see if there is an issue in their organisation and to act on the findings of that assessment to reduce or remove any identified risk. There are many tools available to do this assessment, including HSE’s Management Standards approach, but there are also a lot of other ‘solutions’ being promoted that do little to prevent work related stress and generally don’t tackle the cause of that stress.

Resilience or mindfulness training can be helpful for those that receive it, but it doesn’t remove the problem – if you put someone back into a stressful situation then the training may delay the onset of the problem, but it does not ‘fix it’. Nor does such training stop others in similar roles developing stress related problems.

Wellbeing initiatives like smoking cessation, drink awareness campaigns, gym memberships or exercise clubs, healthy eating, yoga, massage (the list seems almost endless), can also help those people that take part, but again don’t remove the stressor nor stop others developing a stress related problem.

By themselves, these interventions are not going to make an employer wholly compliant with its duty of care, but they can support action where they are part of an organisation wide preventative approach.

So, what’s the key thing for employers to do? Start the conversation, talk to staff and find out whether there is a problem and what the cause(s) may be – HSE has developed a “talking toolkit” which is a structured approach to having conversations with your teams about 6 factors which can affect the level of stress they feel – for smaller organisations having these chats may be sufficient to be compliant. But remember don’t just talk at them, listen to them and take them with you as you develop solutions.

Rob McGreal

Lead Work-related Stress Policy Adviser at the Health and Safety Executive.

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