Workplace stress is currently a major focus of the HSE. What are the causes, and how can resilience help?
By Richard Warburton
What is stress?
Everyone needs a little stress in their life to perform. If you think about a string instrument, without enough tension the instrument goes seriously out of tune, but with too much tension the string can snap. It’s the same with the human body. The trick is to keep stress under control and in balance. Stress is the bodies way of making you more alert when taking on challenges. The HSE defines stress as: ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.
What causes stress?
Stress is caused by the brain interpreting an external stimulus as a perceived threat through a gland called the Hypothalamus. The Hypothalamus sends a single to the kidneys which releases a selection of hormones including, cortisol and adrenalin. Adrenalin raises the heart rate and elevates blood pressure and energy supplies; cortisol increases glucose in the blood stream. All these responses in a mild form can help a person to perform well under pressure and help concentrate on tasks. The problem arises when the stress response becomes constant.
An increasing problem
The health and safety summary statistics for Great Britain 2018 estimates that there are 595,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. 239,000 workers are suffering from a new case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety and over 15.4 million working days are lost due to work-related stress depression or anxiety. As we can see, stress is an increasing problem. A response to the Health and Wellbeing Survey 2018 showed that many workers stated that they had witnessed colleagues at work suffering from mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, who should have been taking time off but were continuing with daily duties. Worryingly only 25% of employers appear to be doing anything about this down from 48% in 2016.
Various factors in the workplace can cause stress. A major contributory factor is people feeling that they don’t have control. The most common workplace stressors are heavy workload, job insecurity, conflicts with co-workers and managers, lack of control over the job, being undervalued, unrealistic expectations, and being underpaid.
Business case for change
Every business has a legal duty under the health and safety at work act 1974 which underlines all health and safety legislation in the UK, and under regulation 3 of the management regulations 1999 it requires every employer to make a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the risks to health and safety.
Too many companies think stress is a quick fix and that it’s just a case of getting a piece of paper out, jotting notes down and within five minutes later a stress risk assessment is in place. Stress management is a big task which can turn into a five-year project. The key to implementing an effective stress management programme in a business is top level management commitment. It’s also important to secure employee commitment and buy in; for example, employees need to understand that questionnaires need to be filled in honestly. Steering group and project groups need to be set up with a clear plan with adequate resource available to give time for the completion of questionnaires. Clear communication of timeframes is needed, for example if an employee fills in a questionnaire in April, it should be explained by Senior Management if immediate changes won’t occur until later in the year. Key findings should be clearly communicated to employees with plans for culture change and advancement.
By its own admittance, stress has not been a high priority for the HSE. However, over the last two to three years the focus has changed dramatically with the introduction of the HSE stress standards, risk assessment guidance, and the stress indicator tool. There are six stress standards which address the following areas: Demands – This involves the demands that the nature of the business places on its employees through workload, workflow and the work environment. Control – This addresses how much say a person has in the way that they work; for example on a production line the work rate is controlled by how fast the conveyor belt moves or if the machinery is working while office employees will have more control over their own work and when they complete it. Support – concerns how people are encouraged by the organisation to report stress and how the individual is supported by their line managers. 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. Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation. Even the smallest act of moving someone’s desk in an office could cause stress to an individual.
Organisational size is an important factor in determining a stress management strategy for a business. The HSE has developed tools to help businesses. The two most widely used are; behavioural competency and the HSE Management Standards Indicator Tool. For small organisations a management review of behaviours will be adequate, but for larger organisations the HSE indicator tool will be more beneficial. The HSE management standards indicator tool is a questionnaire which can be sent out to employees, the results are analysed in an excel spreadsheet.
Resilience is all about making a conscious effort to overcome stressful situations without experiencing any negative adverse effects on a person’s psychological well-being. Resilience is a moderator between the perceived threat and how a person intends to act. Training in resilience is becoming more popular these days, and many employers are recognising the benefits of equipping their workforce with the psychological tools to help them effectively embrace challenges.
Organisations are slowly waking up to the fact that more happy employees make productive businesses. In an ever increasingly competitive world, it is critical that the risk of stress impairing an individual’s well-being is effectively assessed. The implementation of the HSE standards, coupled with resilience training will help to safeguard the health and well-being of UK workers for years to come.