Fighting stress is more than campaigns

As occupational health, safety, and wellbeing have become more interlinked, the role of the health and safety manager has changed and now has a wider level of responsibility.

A good professional focuses on reducing near misses, incidents and risks, and training the workforce accordingly. All too often this work is underappreciated by the staff and often at boardroom level too.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that this position carries with it a great deal of stress. If the boardroom doesn’t advocate an effective corporate governance system where health and safety is treated as a strategic issue and an essential cost, the health and safety professional immediately has a problem, with potentially damaging consequences.

It will likely result in a health and safety situation where people don’t follow the rules, with a relaxed ‘It’s not going to happen here’ attitude, and where it may not be deemed essential to report on incidents. Junior members of staff are likely to view health and safety as a burden, with unnecessary paperwork and rules; something preventing them from getting on with everyday tasks.

Without an embedded health and safety culture with leadership, drive and support from all senior members of staff, the isolation and pressure the health and safety manager could feel is overwhelming. If health and safety successes aren’t recognised, any perceived failures will be viewed harshly.

If the business fundamentally shies away from accepting any failures, health and safety professionals will be put under even more pressure to make the numbers work despite the workforce not being engaged in the concept. Unless the company is in a highly regulated industry or simply prioritises compliance, new health and safety programmes with costs attached are likely to be considered an unnecessary expense.

HSE reported 526,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2016/17, painting a worrying picture. But if the role of the health and safety manager is undervalued, how will they be able to effectively communicate the dangers of work-related stress to the boardroom and really implement change?

Work–related stress

In October last year, the government published a report assessing the detrimental effects of mental health issues, including stress. Thriving at Work stated that 300,000 people in the UK suffering from mental health lose their jobs annually, with estimated costs to the UK economy between £74-£99 billion a year. Government spend for the day to day running of the entire NHS in 2017/18 is forecasted to be £108 billion. Mental health is costing the nation unprecedented amounts of pain and money.

According to the HSE stats, causes of workplace stress are varied, but main causes include workload (44%), lack of support (14%), violence, threats or bullying (13%) or changes at work (8%).

A study carried by job site CV Library in the manufacturing sector found that 69.7% workers cite workplace stress as a key cause of their disrupted sleep. Sleep deprivation then affects an employee’s ability to stay focused, complete tasks, and deal with challenging issues. Stress really is a condition that impacts a sufferer’s entire life.

The HSE’s ‘Go Home Healthy’ campaign launched last September demonstrates how the regulator is driving forward to help reduce the problem. The initiative centres on an employer’s obligation to ensure employees go home healthy from work, with work-related stress one of the key focuses.

Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. Although companies with fewer than five employees don’t have to write down the findings, it’s useful to do this so it can be reviewed later on.

For the rest of organisations, the risk assessment must be recorded and any paperwork produced should help communicate and manage the risks. The management standards identify and manage six areas of work design, which can affect stress levels, including demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Mental health support should always be offered, and employers made aware of stress management and resources available.

In 2016/17, stress accounted for 40% of work related ill health and 49% of working days lost, so employers must listen to the health and safety professional if they are discussing the issue. If appreciation towards their role goes up, employers will be more likely to listen. If it doesn’t, implementing new processes and campaigns will continue to be an uphill battle.

Go Home Healthy campaign at:

Simon Olliff is managing director of Banyard Solutions