Some employers think the only reason staff are stressed at work is that they're just not tough enough, hence the new buzzword – resilience. It is an employer’s responsibility to eliminate or minimise stressors, not employees' to ‘cope better’.
We’ve all heard about stress at work, with millions of workers being signed sick off with it and equal numbers of employers denying its existence, implying that it’s just the new shirkers’ mantra (much like they have maligned backache in the past) and saying that employees are not resilient enough. There seems to be a stalemate around stress in the workplace – but what’s the real story?
Stress facts and figures
Stress in the workplace has been increasing. Over the last five years nearly 56m working days have been lost to stress-related illnesses. Although these figures fell between 2007/8 and 2009/10 from well over 13m to just under 10m, they have started to rise again to over 10m for both 2010/11 and 2011/12, according to the Labour Force Survey.
With National Stress Awareness day on 5 November, we should all be mindful of the impacts of work-related stress, what our employers should be doing about it and how the new buzzword – ‘resilience’ – fits into their agenda.
Employers have a legal duty to risk assess any hazards in the workplace, and take steps to control the impacts. These hazards include stress and there are many ways this can manifest itself. According to HSE’s Managing the causes of work-related stress, there are six main stressors within the work environment:
- Demands: workloads, conflicting priorities, unrealistic deadlines, emotional demands
- Control: how much say a worker has in the way they do their work
- Support: the support and encouragement workers get from their employer, manager and colleagues
- Relationships: this includes a positive working environment, procedures for managing conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
- Role: managers ensuring workers understand their roles and that these roles do not conflict
- Change: how employers manage and communicate organisational change including consultation.
Although these standards are not mandatory they are designed to help employers measure how well they are performing in managing the potential causes of work-related stress.
These are areas of management that employers can – and should – control in order to minimise stress in the workplace. Training and guidance on what stress is, how it manifests itself and how best it can be managed should be integral to any employer’s stress management strategy.
Resilience – where does it fit in?
Some employers seem to have taken the view that the only reason employees are stressed at work is that they lack the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with everyday working life and just aren’t tough enough.
With this in mind, many have taken the view that they will offer resilience training to employees in order to help them cope better.
Coping strategies are totally appropriate in areas of work that are inherently emotionally demanding – such as nurses receiving training on coping with bereavement of patients, or paramedics receiving training and support after a significant traumatic incident. However this should not be confused with, for example, yoga and head massage therapies that have some success in helping employees cope better and feel better within the working environment. They help but they are not the answer: the answer is managing the issues causing stress.
It is the employer’s legal responsibility to eliminate or minimise the stressors. The duty is not on the employee to ‘cope better’.
Employers and managers should accept they have an obligation to manage stress and, in the first instance, develop a stress management strategy in consultation with their trade union colleagues. This will inform them of where the stressors are, who are they affecting and what management controls can be implemented in order to minimise its effects. Once those are in place they can look at helping employees cope better and I’m sure a relaxing head massage or two wouldn’t go amiss.
Tracey Harding is head of health and safety at Unison.
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