Tackling work-related stress in the public sector

Rob McGreal, work-related stress policy lead at the Health & Safety Executive highlights the organisation’s do’s and don’ts for work-related stress

Work-related stress is on the increase. The latest figures released by the Health and Safety Executive show that in the last 12 months, 595,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. What’s more, 15.4 million working days were lost and 57 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health were as a result of work-related stress.

Clearly, this represents a significant cost, not just to the individuals affected, but to business and society as a whole. Lost production, reduced performance, increased incident rates, people leaving work and claiming benefits, and of course the effect on the NHS, it’s estimated the overall cost to the economy is around £5.2 billion.  

Defining work-related stress
Stress is an adverse reaction to excessive pressures. If a person is subject to such pressure for long periods without the opportunity to recover, it can lead to stress and mental and physical health issues including heart problems, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive problems, anxiety or depression. Employers who proactively seek to tackle stress can help to prevent these health problems amongst staff.

When you dig a bit further into the work-related stress statistics that HSE collects, you find the highest number of people affected are largely in public services – education, health and social care, uniform services, social workers and so on. There are some obvious reasons for this – tightening of budgets, reduced resources, fewer staff, increased workloads, more expectation from service users, and external reviews or performance targets are just a few examples.

Why employers should take action
There are three main reasons for taking action; firstly, the moral case: no employer deliberately sets out to cause harm to its workforce, but without consideration of what work is doing to workers, such problems will develop, and people will be harmed.

Secondly, the legal case: there is a legal requirement on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their workers. This means assessing the risks from workplace hazards and taking steps to remove or reduce those risks as far as reasonably practicable. Work-related stress and mental ill health are workplace hazards.

If an employee has a pre-existing mental health condition, employers may have additional responsibilities under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to keep that person in work; consider whether the work or workplace can aggravate or bring on episodes of such conditions, or other disability, and take action to tackle this risk.

Thirdly, the financial case: it’s not just the cost of people taking time off, it’s the cost of cover – overtime payments, bank or supply staff, lost productivity – people don’t perform at their optimum when ill, recruiting replacement staff and training them, and the potential costs of employment tribunals.

Employers must take health risks as seriously as safety. HSE’s Go Home Healthy campaign places work-related stress as one of its three priority areas. We are proactively reaching out to employers to raise awareness of their legal duty to assess the risk from work-related stress and providing them with the tools and guidance to help manage those risks.

Steps an employer can take
Before you can tackle work-related stress, you need to understand what the problem is, where it is and the causes. This means doing a risk assessment and gathering evidence.

HSE has developed an approach which can indicate how well an organisation is managing stress. It looks at six factors:

Demands – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment;
Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work;
Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues;
Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour;
Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles; and
Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated within the organisation.

This approach includes a survey tool which has been developed with industry and the 35 questions are designed to give a considered result by touching on each factor. Data from this survey can be fed into an analysis tool which scores each factor and gives indications of stressors within the organisation. If demographic questions are used (department, job type, grade etc.) it can drill down to identify where those problems exist.

To complement and build on this approach, we have also created a new, free-to-download Talking Toolkit to help start the conversation – a vital first step towards preventing work-related stress and developing the actions and stress risk assessment employers need to comply with the law. This toolkit is a useful resource which can be provided to line managers to help them start to have simple, practical conversations with employees. The toolkit is not, by itself, enough to make an employer compliant but it will give a lot of information about potential stressors and the need to tackle them as far as is reasonably practicable.

Whatever you do, it’s unlikely you’ll have to start from scratch or re-invent the wheel – you’ll probably be able to use or adapt what you’ve already got in place.  

HSE’s work-related stress do’s and don’ts
Ignore the problem - it won’t go away;
Just talk to employees, listen to them too – they know the job and its problems;
Rely solely on coping mechanisms like resilience or mindfulness training, or treatments like counselling – if people return to a toxic environment they will still be affected; these may delay damage but, won’t stop it or remove the stressors;
Rely on a staff satisfaction survey as a suitable sufficient risk assessment – it’s unlikely the questions asked will be sufficient to identify all the problems, their location(s) or cause(s) – but they can be a useful data source during the assessment.

Put in place an organisational approach to assess the risk of work- related stress;
Gather data from several sources – sickness absence data, TU feedback, staff satisfaction surveys, formal and informal staff discussions, performance reviews, staff retention data;
Ensure senior managers demonstrate commitment, including providing sufficient resource for the stress management project;
Make sure everyone has the opportunity to contribute during the process – stress can affect everyone from senior management down – if you don’t get information from every level you won’t know whether solutions will remove a problem or merely move it on;
Remember, it’s unlikely all stressors can be removed, so develop plans for individuals who become affected;
Make stress management part of “business as usual” good practice, build it into things like ‘change management’, performance reviews, team meetings;
As an employee, take an active part in any stress management process and raise your concerns – if you don’t, who will?

More immediate solutions
If you are looking for more immediate solutions, there are some things you can look at doing now: avoiding emailing staff at times when they are at home, off sick or on leave. Some workplaces have a policy that prohibits this, and some countries are legislating to stop this; consider how well the organisation communicates with staff – asking for feedback about whether the routes used are appropriate or whether the messages are considered helpful, relevant or important. For example, we mostly default to email but does everyone have access to a computer?
In areas where there is external regulation, examination or inspection paperwork or written assessments are often needed. Review exactly what is required and streamline where possible to save on resource time; for those reading this that are managers – get your teams talking about stress and mental health issues – reducing stigma is a positive effect and getting people to talk may pre-empt problems. Our Talking Toolkit can help you get these conversations started; if you’re feeling particularly brave, as a manager, check whether your behaviour may be part of the problem using the HSE self-assessment Management Competency Indicator Tool.

Anyone can be affected by stress – whether it is work-related or caused by other sources such as personal or financial problems. Although there is no specific requirement for an employer to support someone experiencing external stressors, it makes sense to do so – someone having difficulties is likely to be less productive, be distracted and unable to concentrate.

By keeping an eye on each other and making it easier for people to talk about problems, we can help people get the support they need as early as possible. If you’re experiencing problems, please speak to someone – your manager, a colleague, trades union representative, GP – don’t suffer in silence, the earlier you seek help the better.

For more information on the Go Home Healthy campaign visit: https://bit.ly/2Fs9kuJ, follow us on Twitter @Go_Home_Healthy, on Facebook GoHomeHealthy, and join the conversation at #WorkRight

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