Stress - Too little, too late

Stress is the largest cause of occupational ill health in the UK but despite employers being legally bound to ensure employees' psychological welfare at work, stress risk assessments are being neglected, says Jean Brading

Staff are generally aware of taking care when lifting heavy objects and moving cumbersome equipment, and businesses are obliged to train their workforce accordingly. After all, no one wants to injure themselves, and no employer wants staff to be off work. But is as much attention paid to the idea of enabling people to avoid unnecessary stress?

Stress is the single largest cause of occupational ill health in the UK, accounting for around half of all sick days at a cost of about £6m, according to the Health and Safety Executive. It has a major impact on individuals and on business. Sources of stress are plentiful and people at all levels can suffer, from work experience students to top management. Today, employers have a legal duty to ensure not only physical but also psychological welfare at work. Beware litigation, compensation in stress cases can be unlimited.

So what is stress? It can be defined, according to the HSE, as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. It arises when they perceive they are unable to cope with those demands". So it is not an illness, although it can lead to one. It is all about perception, and will, therefore, vary from person to person.

Stress management

From a health and safety perspective there can be a way of merging the two concepts of stress management and manual handling. It is all about risk assessment. There are parallels between the two which can be found on the manual handling pages on the HSE website. These include the Manual Handling Regulations 1992, which establish a clear hierarchy of measures for dealing with risks from manual handling: avoid hazardous manual handling operations so far as is reasonably practicable; assess any hazardous manual handling operations that cannot be avoided; and reduce the risk of injury so far as is reasonably practicable.

This is not a million miles away from the three-fold mantra and approach to workplace stress management: prevent, measure, reduce.

The detailed assessment of every manual handling operation could be a major undertaking and might involve wasted effort. Many handling operations, for example the occasional lifting of a small lightweight object, will involve negligible handling risk. Perhaps this is where the two concepts diverge. There is a difference between manual handling risk assessments and stress assessments: the former is more quantifiable than the latter. Stress is about feelings and, therefore, totally subjective.

The sources of stress include the following: job demands - such as workload, work patterns, and the environment; control - how much say the person has in the way they do their work; support, encouragement and the resources provided by management; relationships - for example conflict and bullying; role - whether people understand this and there are no conflicting demands; and change - how organisational change is managed and communicated in the workplace.

This list is a useful basis for investigating the amount of stress prevalent in a workplace, and many of these sources of stress are measurable. A lesson that can be learnt from manual handling is to remove the emotive side of stress by calling it something else, for example, well-being or health promotion, and by viewing stress management as just another complex but non-intimidating aspect of work.

Of course, many people, including some academics, suggest there is no such thing as stress. They suggest that what people are experiencing when they feel stressed is just a normal reaction that helps them deal with pressure, in a similar way to someone who comes to terms with a bereavement without necessarily requiring specialist help.

Cavalier attitude

But is this too cavalier? Could it be said the process of manual handling has been over-exaggerated? Although part and parcel of everyday life and not given too much attention, the wise employer thinks ahead and tries to maximise the productivity of their staff through optimising workplace health.

External help is sometimes needed and carrying out a stress audit can help identify potential stress hot spots, for example, a particular manager whose style could be improved. Similarly, training line managers in how to recognise signs of stress, and giving them the information, skills and confidence to deal with it, can work wonders. They do need to be familiar with their legal duties but should also be encouraged to follow best practice in the proactive management of stress-inducers, and the development of a healthy work culture.

Employers have a responsibility for the health and safety of staff, including their mental health. Manual handling training is commonplace in many organisations, so why do businesses not try and see stress education in the same way? Being stress-wise can increase attendance rates, foster loyalty, improve the organisation's reputation, please the customers and avoid costly litigation.

- Jean Brading is the employment services director at Health and Case Management.

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