Workplace Stress: How To Minimise The Problem

Peninsula Team

November 03 2010

There are repeated claims and assertions that in the current economic climate more and more workers, at all levels of responsibility are increasingly suffering from work related stress. It is an increasingly important problem in todays workplace.

In various studies about 1/3 of workers report high levels of stress and 1/4 of them consider their work as the most significant stressor in their lives. There is also evidence to show that stress is a major cause of staff turnover and that work related stress has a direct cost to British employers of more than £500 million per year (at 2001/2002 prices).

Research has shown that on average, 12.2 million working days are lost every year due to work related stress. In a long running, 15 year study, of 10,000 British workers it was found that:

* factors concerned with work organisation are capable of inducing both psychological and physical ill health;
* management style has the potential to affect the health of employees;
* interventions are only likely to be effective if applied to management systems and work organisation, rather than at the individual level; and
* many groups of workers, but most often teachers, nurses and managers reported being highly stressed.

The Health and Safety at Work Act and its associated Management Regulations require employers to assess the risks to their employees and to take reasonably practicable measures to protect their health, safety and welfare whilst at work. There is also a common law duty of care towards their workforce. The Courts accept that workplace stress exists, that there is a clear link between the organisation and management of work and stress, and that employers have a duty to reduce work related stress and its consequences. A number of successful claims have been brought against employers by employees who have been able to prove that they have suffered work related stress.

These successful cases raise questions of when and how that liability might arise and what an employer should do to minimise the risk of work related stress both generally and in respect of a particular employee.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) advise that good management practices will help avoid or identify the onset, and when necessary reduce the consequence of stress. They have developed a set of Management Standards for work related stress which will help employers identify potential problems and manage the situation in their workplace.

The standards look at 6 key areas where the organisation or design of work can lead to work related stress:
1. The demands of the job. Factors that cause stress include:
a. the quantity, pace and content of the work load - too little is as bad as too much;
b. work schedules – irregular shift patterns, inadequate breaks from work and uncertain hours are stressors; and
c. the physical environment where high noise levels, thermal comfort, and the threat of violence are relevant.

2. The amount of control an employee has over their work. Stress can be caused by:
a. a lack of control over the work,
b. low autonomy; and
c. a prescriptive routine where the worker has little decision-making to do.

3. The support that an employee receives whilst at work. Problems can arise when the worker’s skills don’t come up to the job and they are not helped or supported by their employer, direct manager or their colleagues.

4. The employee’s role in the job. An individual can become stressed when they are unsure of their position, for example:
a. their role is ambiguous – the employer doesnt recognise them as a manager but in some circumstances expects them to act as a manager;
b. in a management position they feel out of their depth;
c. they feel that they are too closely managed and that they are not given an appropriate level of responsibility; and
d. where there is a conflict in their role - where they have to take one side of an argument while believing in and supporting the other side.

5. The employee’s relationship with the people they work with - interpersonal conflicts, bullying and harassment.

6. The way change is managed by the employer. The way changes to business processes and work activities are manages is a very significant cause of stress, especially when untried and untested systems are introduced with little planning or training and don’t work as expected.

Against each of these 6 key areas the HSE sets out a standard which can be used as a yardstick against which an employer can use to measure their performance. These management standards can also be used by employers to prevent, control or mitigate the risk of stress amongst their workforce. Their proactive use will identify potential areas of stress in the organisation and allow the adoption of strategies and systems to prevent or reduce exposure to stressors. They can be used as the basis of stress management training for employees and managers which will help control work related stress. They can also be used to help manage a situation where an employee has already developed the symptoms of work related stress; helping to identify the underlying cause and direct a programme or programmes to assist recovery.

Employers and managers who find that they fall short of the standards are able to identify the reason, take corrective action and so reduce the risk of stress among their workforce.

Normally our bodies and minds cope with stress as part of everyday life. The symptoms - adrenaline production, short-term resistance as a coping mechanism, tension and exhaustion are usually short lived and cause no lasting harm. However, when people at work are exposed to excessive pressures or excessive demands which are relentless and long term they will suffer physical and psychological illness. If the early signs of developing problems are not spotted and acted upon the consequences can be significant and long term.

There is a good body of evidence to show that businesses with trained and competent managers have lower levels of work related stress than those where the managers have not received formal management training. Research into work related stress by the HSE has shown that there is considerable overlap between the management competencies required for preventing and reducing potential sources of stress at work and general management competencies.

For each of 6 key areas that have been identified as causing stress the HSE-CIPD guidance says that the risk of stress is under control when managers and staff can agree that the management systems in place are appropriate.

In the key area of job demands, good controls are in place when workers agree that they can cope with the demands of their jobs and that there is a recognised method of raising and responding to individual concerns. This would be demonstrated by a management style that matches peoples skills and abilities to the job, and that jobs, while challenging, are within the worker’s capability and their targets can be met within normal working hours. There will also be a formal system through which a worker’s concerns about the working environment can be addressed.

In the key area of control, workers should be able to agree that they have a say in the way they do their work and that personal concerns are taken into account. This is achieved when employees control the pace of their work and have a say in deciding their work pattern. They will also be encouraged to use and develop their skills and given the chance to take on some challenging work.

Support is a necessary component of a stress management system. There should be policies and procedures to support the workforce. These will include systems to encourage managers to support their staff and colleagues to support each other. Everyone in the organisation will know what additional support and resources are available and how to obtain them. Employees will also receive regular and constructive feedback designed to overcome problems or give encouragement rather than a one-sided criticism.

The likelihood of stress will be reduced where there are settled relationships between workers and none are subject to bullying or harassment by colleagues or managers. Businesses should have agreed systems to prevent and resolve unacceptable behaviours which encourage the reporting of unacceptable behaviours and a system for dealing with them in a positive way.

Workers need to be clear as to their roles and responsibilities. So the organisation must itself be clear about roles and responsibilities and ensure that it does not create conflicts. Good management will be demonstrated when these considerations are taken into account and when there is also a recognised system for raising and resolving conflicts.

Change is a major cause of workplace stress especially where timescales are too short and where the approach is unplanned. To reduce stress change needs to be planned and workers need to be involved in or consulted throughout the planning process. They need to understand what is happening and how the change will affect them personally. Workers need to be fully trained in new processes before they are introduced and be supported through the initial period of change. There needs to be a transparent feedback process through which they can influence the development and improvement of any new systems. Perhaps the most important item is that they have a timetable of change so that they know what changes will affect them and when.

At first sight this all looks complicated and many managers think it too daunting a challenge to even begin. That’s not only the wrong approach but is also an inaccurate assessment of the situation. Workplace stress may be seen as a health and safety issue but in reality its foundations are in management and personnel practices and procedures. A listening and caring management approach, the approach we all aim for, is the way forward.

The official guidance on reducing workplace stress says that the way forward is through communication, consultation and being led by example. Senior managers must not only commit to and resource the management standards but be seen to abide by them, especially when there is urgent work to be done and in times of difficulty.

The advice is to look at stress matters in small chunks; it could be a subject, a department or a location. The approach needs to be planned and employers are advised to start small; work with a small group on a small topic and gradually expand as you become confident in your approach. Keep the workforce informed about what is happening at all stages of the process. Be honest with them, if there are problems or difficult issues emerging tell them. To do otherwise is not good management and in itself causes stress.

A sensible approach to managing stress is to use the risk assessment approach. Step 1 is to understand the management standards. Step 2 is to identify who might be at risk; where and how. Obtain information or evidence to support your conclusion.

The third Step and possibly the most difficult is evaluating those risks and identifying from the information gathered where the problems lay.
In Step 4 you will record your findings before going on to develop and implement an action plan. Step 5 will subsequently monitor and review the effectiveness of your action plan and enable you to make adjustments to improve your systems.

It is important to tackle the issue of stress and to act now to stop it affecting your business. Call our 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2772 today to stop stress becoming a problem in your business.

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