Work-related stress | HSE strategy fails to secure improvements

The HSE has reaffirmed its commitment to tackling workplace stress after efforts to promote its management standards have fallen short.

Andrew Kingscott, one of the HSE’s principal inspectors, told delegates at IOSH’s National Safety and Health Conference for the public sector that the standards introduced in 2004 were found to be lacking when it comes to reducing the number of cases of work-related stress.

He confirmed that tacking work-related stress will continue to be one of the regulator’s top priorities for the next five years, alongside musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease.

Background

While there is no specific law relating to workplace stress, employers do have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff. This includes identifying all workplace stressors and conducting risk assessments to eliminate or control the risks from stress.

However, the latest statistics from the HSE reveal that around 595,000 UK employees reported feeling stressed, depressed or anxious in 2017-18, culminating in a staggering 15.4 million working days lost to ill health. In fact, while preventing physical harm tends to dominate the conversation, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to spending cuts, the public sector has been the worst hit by stress, as understaffing has given way to increasing workloads, which then exacerbates understaffing further.

Against this background, Kingscott admitted that the HSE’s Helping Great Britain Work Well campaign – which identified six strategic themes, including ill health – had failed “to gather the momentum it needed to”. He therefore acknowledged that more needs to be done to ensure that requirements placed on employers are understood and properly enforced.

Proposals

Current Management Standards for stress have been in place for 14 years, and according to Kingscott, the HSE is “not really making progress” when it comes to effecting real change and driving down the numbers.

Like any legislation or standard that has existed for over a decade with little success in its implementation, the HSE has now recognised a need for a refresh of its management standards and has developed an action plan to ensure they are applied effectively.

Kingscott confirmed that the HSE will:

  • Determine which issues will trigger an investigation; and
  • Develop operational guidance to ensure enforcement action taken by inspectors is consistent.

In practical terms, the latter will look to determine whether an organisation meets “baseline” requirements for managing workplace stress. This will include ensuring risk assessments have been undertaken, appropriate procedures are in place, and that there is an ongoing management process.

According to Kingscott, the aim is to provide “a much clearer indication to frontline inspectors as to in what circumstances we will start to take enforcement action and improvement notices to get you to where you need to be.”

He added: “We’re going to be much clearer on when the HSE is going to be involved and what that involvement will look like.”

"The management standards have been in place for 14 years and you think, ‘Hold on a minute, we’re not really making progress’. If we had another piece of legislation or a standard that had been in [place] for 14 years and we were missing it by a country mile, I don’t think we’d feel too bad if the regulator was taking some robust enforcement. This is something the HSE is going to look to promote more."

Andrew Kingscott, Principal HSE Inspector

Not just a “nice to do”

Evidently, we are battling a situation where workplace mental health is still not fully understood or prioritised. Often, Kingscott says, tackling these issues falls under the category of “nice to do” rather than a legal requirement, and because employers are unsure of how to approach the issue, they often put off taking action.

One way to combat this, Kingscott suggests, is to treat stress and other employee wellbeing matters in the same way as all other issues in terms of a “hierarchy of control: prevention, reduction and then control”. It is hoped that adopting this more structured approach will go some way towards driving down the “shocking” statistics surrounding work-related stress.

Need support with workplace stress?

If you’re looking to proactively manage stress and stress-related absenteeism, Ellis Whittam’s experienced Employment Law and Health & Safety specialists can provide practical, tailored advice and support to ensure you meet your legal obligations and are acting in the best interests of your business.

We also offer a one-day stress awareness course for managers and employees, which can be delivered exclusively to you at your premises. For more information, call 0345 226 8393.