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Stressing the importance of stress

23 January 2013

According to an HSM poll less than half of readers' organisations have policies in place to manage stress.

According to an HSM poll less than half of readers' organisations have policies in place to manage stress. This is despite work-related stress being one of the top causes of working days lost through injury or ill-health in the UK at a cost to the economy approaching £4 billion.

So why is there so much reluctance to address this issue? To some degree the nature of stress makes it difficult to define and therefore to prevent. The HSE suggests stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them, but with pressure as able to inspire and motivate as it is to provoke stress, one person's meat can be another person's poison. It is believed that when pressure is excessive or uncontrolled negative stress can occur and in worse cases lead to serious illness and even death. Research by the HSE, and the CIPD has found poor managers are the most often reported cause of such stress.

Even so, some may still shrug their shoulders at this point; what is the real likelihood of serious illness or death occurring which can be attributed to work-related stress? This attitude is propagated by a lack of specific work stress-related prosecutions or high profile cases in the UK.

However, elsewhere it is a different story. When it came to light towards the end of 2009 that 25 employees at France Telecom had committed suicide in the past18 months, many leaving notes blaming stress at work for their decision to do so, the company was suddenly forced to take the issue very seriously indeed. In Japan the problem is so severe that work-related suicide is a recognised and compensated condition known as “karojisatsu” which translates as suicide by overwork.

While these are examples of the potential extreme effects of work-related stress they may act as a wake up call for employers who are still taking the issue lightly. I have spoken to employers who fear that recognising work-related stress is an invitation for false sick claims, however organisations that have put together policies on stress have reported quite the opposite. Having official procedures in place means employers can identify and support genuine cases and discourage false ones, and companies with more mature health and safety policies are even extending this to supporting employees with non-work related stress (BAE Systems Submarine Solutions being one example, see page 12).

For anyone who has been struggling with this issue, the impending BSI standard reported in last issue and its subsequent training courses should help with assessing and managing the risks associated with work-related stress. In addition the HSE's national management standards for work-related stress provide useful guidance on best practice, see: www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standard

Georgina Bisby
Editor, Health & Safety Matters