Do you know how to properly assess the impact and prevalence of workplace stress in your organisation?
Previously we looked at the three topics identified by the HSE as the priorities for managing health and wellbeing in the workplace – occupational lung disease, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), and stress.
For the first two topics, the means of identifying the causes and controlling them are well understood, if not always applied. Eliminate hazardous airborne contaminants, and where they can’t be eliminated control exposure by keeping people away, or where there is no alternative, by wearing well-fitted respiratory protective equipment (RPE).
Similarly, risk assessments can identify where MSDs might result from manual handling activities, or by awkward postures (for example, when sitting at a computer or in a vehicle all day) and the risk factors can be controlled.
Understanding Stress-Related Ill Health
What is less well understood is how to manage the risk from stress. We are all different, and all respond differently to stressors – some people thrive on high workloads, tight deadlines, and a busy work life, whilst others will crumble.
But using that as an excuse to do nothing is like saying that some people are stronger than others, and doing nothing about unreasonable manual handling requirements. Thinking that way cost one car engine part manufacturer £200,000 in fines and costs in November 2016.
Mental wellbeing needs to be taken seriously. The HSE state that stress, depression, or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health in 2019/2020. The British Safety Council cites an estimate that in the construction industry the number of deaths from suicide could be 10 times higher than those from fatal accidents at work.
The tried and tested approach to stress recommended by the HSE is one that traditional safety managers will recognise: identify the hazards and who will be harmed, assess the risks, and control the causes of harm.
Whilst yoga classes, counselling phone lines, and onsite massage are nice to have, providing these as a first step is the equivalent of providing dust-masks and gardening gloves without considering the types of respiratory or handling hazards people are facing, or whether there is a better way to control the hazards at source.
Whilst yes, we are all different in our response to stressors, the HSE has identified six headings under which workplace stress hazards can be grouped.
To make this personal, we have considered this from the perspective of a health and safety manager’s own stress levels:
Stress Increases - You are frequently required to work longer hours than contracted, and you are expected to carry out risk assessments for technical areas outside your expertise.
Stress Managed - Your workload is achievable within agreed hours of work, and you are given time to develop your skills. You have the resources to bring in specialists for areas outside your current skillset.
Stress Increases - You are not allowed to leave half an hour early for a school parents' evening, but are expected to work late with no advance notice.
Stress Managed - You can plan your work, and you are happy to work longer hours when it is needed, provided you can also choose which days to leave early to manage family commitments.
Stress Increases - You are expected to make a report about accidents to the board, but department heads ignore your requests for information and the IT system keeps crashing. You are criticised by your line manager for missing the deadline.
Stress Managed - When due to make a presentation, departments send you their data in plenty of time. IT provides proactive support to make sure systems can cope with the extra workload.
Stress Increases - When you request information about an accident you receive verbal abuse. When you complain, your line manager refuses to take any action because that department has the highest productivity.
Stress Managed - Aware of the sensitivity of the accident investigation, your line manager hosts a discussion between you and the department head, defining unacceptable behaviour in advance.
Stress Increases - As the safety advisor, you are made responsible for the implementation of your recommendations, even though you have no control over the staff who must implement them.
Stress Managed - A line manager is asked to review the actions arising from a risk assessment and to determine which can be implemented and which might need further consideration or support.
Stress Increases - You hear rumours of cost-cutting and assume that safety is likely to be the first area to suffer. You start looking at job advert websites in your lunch hour.
Stress Managed - A company-wide meeting is held to explain forthcoming changes, after which your line manager invites you to discuss if you could take on additional responsibilities.
The HSE provides some excellent, and free, resources to help you carry out your stress risk assessment, including a 35-item questionnaire that can be distributed to all your staff. If you haven’t considered stress at work yet, this is a good place to start.
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