It is good to talk. Stress is no longer a taboo topic

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Finch Consulting’s Joint Head of Legal, Julia Thomas and Senior Consultant, Matt Longley discuss why stress is no longer a taboo topic, the effects its having on people during COVID-19 and how to deal with it in the future workplace.

An estimated 11 million days are lost at work each year because of stress at work[1]. This article explores the concept.

According to the Labour Force Survey of self-reported estimates which can be found on the Health and Safety Executive’s website, stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the bulk of working days lost due to work-related ill health; the figures being 12.8 million and 6.9 million respectively.

The average number of days off work for each worker suffering from work-related ill health is 15.1 days

The increase in suicide rates is another indicator of a growing issue with mental health in the UK.  There was a reported increase of 10.9% in the rate of suicides across the UK from 2017 – 2018 and a further 6.5% increase last year based on provisional figures now available for the first half of 2019. According to the Office for National Statistics the highest suicide rate is among men (17.2 deaths per 100,000) and men aged 45 – 49 are particularly vulnerable (27.1 deaths per 100,000).

There can be no doubt that mental health issues, whether caused by work or not, are serious, and are rightly a growing cause for concern.

Although there appears to be a growing awareness of the issue, there remains a perception amongst some employees employers, and those who may work or provide services for a business (freelance or self-employed workers), that an admission to feeling anxious or stressed is counterproductive to career enhancement. Progress is being made with the HSE in particular focusing on management of the issue in its inspections, and with a wider understanding among some employers of the risks and negative impact on business that unmanaged stress can have. The most progressive are now taking active steps to identify and manage stress in their workforce to avoid it reaching the point where it causes long term or permanent harm or death. Increasingly, less stigma is attached to saying, “I need some time out” without being penalised for needing that space away from the workplace.

So what is stress and why is it important to tackle it?

HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.[2]. Although stress is a reaction and not an illness (and some stress can have very positive benefits such as boosting memory and helping people to become more efficient at accomplishing certain tasks) it can also result in illness.

When stress becomes an illness, it can have a detrimental impact on physical and psychological wellbeing, and this is something which cannot be ignored by employers.  Some studies now link chronic stress to a negative change in health. For example the Whitehall II Study prepared by University College London for the HSE  was based on a sample of 10,308 civil servants aged between 35 and 55.  Researchers followed up with the participants every two to three years over a ten year period. The researcher concluded that “low decision latitude”, “high job demands”, “low social support at work”, and “combination of high effort and low rewards” were associated with poor mental health, poor health functioning and in some, coronary heart disease[3].

Workplace stress can have a negative impact on productivity and in turn the profitability of a business.  Your workforce is the DNA of your business and in many cases will be your most valuable asset. A failure to take care of this asset can result in long term leave, and may lead to compensation claims or an investigation by a health and safety regulator where for example, there is a failure to identify and manage the risk to your staff of stress.

Every business is under a legal obligation to take reasonably practicable steps to avoid and mitigate the harm to health that may be derived from stress in the workplace.  Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (“HSWA”), applies to the risk of psychological harm in just the same way as it does the risk of as physical harm.

Convicted breaches can be punished with very significant fines for organisations. So financially, there are very tangible benefits to having measures in place to identify stress and to help affected individuals manage it once identified.

How can stress be managed?

Collaborative risk assessments are a good way of gathering data to help you in identifying: the stress risk factors in your organisation; who might be harmed and how; how those risks might be reduced through measures such as open lines of communication, confidential support hotlines, ensuring that excessive hours are limited, breaks are taken, and ensuring staff take their holiday leave.

Education and training might also be part of the controls to ensure that everyone across a business are aware of the signs to look for in colleagues and which they might recognise in themselves without knowing the cause. For example, excessive fatigue, increased drinking, smoking, increased absences and a downturn in mood might indicate stress. Staff also need to know with whom concerns about a potential issue should be raised and equipped with an understanding of what to do about any concerns they may have.

Getting the right controls in place can be challenging as people respond to stress in different ways, so a one size fits all approach is unlikely to be the best way to deal with the issue. The mitigation methods employed will depend on your organisation, the type of work, its demands on your employees, and the needs of each impacted person.

Risk assessments should be recorded in writing and their ongoing efficacy monitored and reviewed to ensure that they are and continue to be effective as you work and its demands on staff continues to evolve over time.

The HSE has put together Management Standards to help employers manage work related stress, supported by Guidance INDG 430. According to these Standards there are six areas of work that may adversely impact on employee health if not properly managed:

  1. Demands: This includes the assessment of an employee’s workload, working patterns and the environment they work in both onsite and offsite.
  2. Control: This involves how much control an employee has about what and how they do their work.  .
  3. Support: Employees should have the resources required to achieve the outcomes expected of them whether that be physical resources such as computers or intangible resources such as the backing and encouragement of line management, colleagues and the business.
  4. Relationships: Promoting a positive working environment devoid of conflict and having effective procedures in place to deal with unacceptable behaviour.
  5. Roles: Providing employees with clarity regarding their roles to mitigate the risk of internal conflict.
  6. Change: No matter the size of a business, change both large and small can be unsettling for employees.  If your business is going to embark on a change in operations, having an effective change management system in place which allows employees to communicate with management and feel like part of the process can limit the stress that might by caused by imposition of change without prior employee involvement.

Is the threat of a regulatory investigation on this issue real?

Work related stress is one of the three top priorities for the HSE’s occupational health work plan going forward as, apart from musculoskeletal disorders it is the most commonly reported cause of occupational ill health and accounts for 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. Other regulators, such as the Local Authorities, are likely to follow suit.

In its health priority plan on work related stress the HSE has stated it wants to see:

“A significant increase in the number of employers taking a proactive (rather than reactive) stance to managing WRS through the Management Standards approach or other suitable risk assessment methodology….”

The HSE has made it clear it will consider investigating concerns about work related stress brought to its attention if there is sufficient evidence of a number of staff[4] currently experiencing work-related stress or stress related ill health. However, in an acknowledgment perhaps of the hidden nature of many stress related issues, it will normally expect employees to raise issues with their employer and for the employer to have been given sufficient time to respond to concerns raised before prosecution is considered.

Stress and COVID-19

It seems appropriate given the current pandemic to add a note about the impact on stress of COVID-19.

In a very short space of time we have all had to adjust our working and social lives due to COVID-19 pandemic.

For those able to work from home, the lack of direct contact with friends or with family outside our immediate households, and very little direct human contact, bar going out for essentials and exercise can generate feelings of isolation which in turn, can lead to anxiety and other conditions which although not the fault of their employer may impact adversely on their ability to work. For those still going out to work and in particular those working in care sectors with frequent and prolonged contact with COVID-19 infected patients, the fear of contamination from commuters and workplaces) is particularly real and stressful.

The income of many households will have been impacted though furloughing (which in turn can increase feelings of isolation and increased stress) and through layoffs and reduced hours. The financial insecurity and feelings of job insecurity in a household compound the issues.

The duty to look after the well-being of your staff continues through the pandemic. Just as you would be expected to do outside of these extraordinary times, you need to risk assess these risks which will not be the same for every business and consider what measures might mitigate this particular impact – such as enhanced communications and updates to staff, bringing people together through Zoom or Microsoft Teams on a regular basis to reassure staff, and perhaps the creation of a wellbeing hub with authoritative resources about available help and steps that can be taken in isolation to mitigate the risk of stress including ensuring regular breaks and exercise.

You need to review your risk assessment as we emerge from lockdown too. The accumulated stress is likely to be ongoing for many for some time. The pandemic will not last for ever and when we start back up, we all need our workers to be fit and healthy so we can work together to create the new normal whatever that will be.

What employers need to be wary of is where staff have been absent for a significant period, be cautious of the impact as this can impact the confidence of some staff in their ability to carry out their role too, and be aware that high levels of stress outside the workplace are likely to be having a continued impact on many for some time to come, which might make them more vulnerable to stress in the workplace which they would normally be able to manage.

So don’t forget when revisiting your risk assessments to identify and manage the risks in your workplace as we proceed into life after the lockdown remember to consider stress and the factors which may impact on worker stress as mentioned in this article. A podcast by myself and my colleague Matt Longley may also provide some assistance with this task. However, if you do any have any further questions or require more information on any of the matters raised in this article please do not hesitate to contact Matt or I; our contact details are included below.

Julia Thomas

Matt Longley

[1] HSE website: https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/

[2] HSE website: https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/what-to-do.htm

[3] Page vi of the Whitehall II Study report first published 2002 https://www.hse.gov.uk/research/crr_pdf/2002/crr02422.pdf

[4] No guidance is given on how many might trigger a concern, but clearly this suggests more than one-person suffering.