Share the responsibility for a happy workplace
By Gillian Cribbs
Published: February 24 2002 17:57 | Last Updated: February 24 2002 18:06
A flood of claims for workplace stress looks set to recede after a ruling in
the UK's Court of Appeal this month overturned three damages awards against
employers in stress-related cases.
Yet, despite the ruling, concerns about stress are likely to intensify in
offices and boardrooms as companies demand more of their employees. The
question remains: who is responsible for controlling stress - the individual
or the managers?
It is a question that Rob Briner, lecturer in occupational psychology at
Birkbeck College, London, has been researching for the past 18 months.
Funded by the UK Health and Safety Executive, he has examined nine workplace
stressors - including workload, communication, home/work balance, role
ambiguity, job security and management support - in an attempt to understand
the dynamics of stress and its effects on employees. Mr Briner's work will
form the basis of a set of HSE standards to help employees and managers deal
more effectively with workplace stress.
His work is timely. According to the HSE, half a million people in the UK
are suffering from work-related stress, anxiety or depression, while 6.5m
working days are lost through stress-related illnesses in the UK each year.
A recent Industrial Society survey found that 86 per cent of workers felt
stress was a problem in their organisation, with 36 per cent regarding it as
a significant issue.
While Mr Briner is sceptical about the nature of stress and the
multi-million-pound industry that has grown up around it over the past 20
years, he does accept that work can be harmful on some levels.
Technically, stress is a meaningless term. No one suffers from stress per se
- they suffer from anxiety disorders or depression. Stress has been
pathologised as the individual's reaction to work rather than being
understood as a symptom of problems in the organisation.
He believes responsibility for stress has fallen squarely on employers in
recent years - hence the record number of court cases - but the recent
ruling makes clear that employees have a duty to inform employers about
their stress and, ultimately, take some responsibility for managing it. Mr
Briner says standards will help both sides to identify the components of
work-related stress and encourage them to work together to find ways to
Colin Mackay, principal psychologist of the HSE, says the executive chose to
develop management standards rather than focusing on employee assistance or
counselling programmes because it wanted to adopt a preventive approach to
stress management. "We wanted to identify and understand the characteristics
of work that cause health problems," he says.
Factors such as high workload, lack of control and inadequate support are
known to damage people's health, he says, and by analysing various stressors
and how they interact, it will be possible to draft a set of universal
An early draft standard for managing workload, for example, encourages human
resources professionals and line managers to make realistic assessments of
the nature and quantity of workloads when designing and recruiting for jobs;
it calls for staff training in workload management and the use of formal
mechanisms to report workload problems; and demands that senior managers
redistribute workload in exceptional circumstances, such as periods of
Mr Mackay says that while the UK has taken the lead over Europe and the US
in developing management standards for stress, it will be the end of 2003
before the first three standards are piloted and a further two years before
a complete set is developed. The HSE will decide whether to formalise the
standards into code or law when it has some idea of how organisations react
to them. If they are not adopted voluntarily, the HSE may consider defining
a code of practice, he suggests.
While employees may think the HSE's work is too distant to be of any benefit
to them, Owen Tudor, health and safety officer of the Trades Union Congress,
says standards are needed now in order to develop a best practice approach.
"We need rules of engagement," he says. "Employers need to know what they
have to do and employees need to know what they can expect from employers."
Roger Mead, an independent stress management consultant, agrees. "There is a
lot of information about what stress is but very little about how you can
assess it as a risk and make changes to reduce it," he says. Managers must
count the financial as well as the personal costs of stress: the lost days,
increased staff turnover, poor customer service and low morale.
However, Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the
University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in northern
England, believes the best way to understand and prevent workplace stress is
to conduct a stress audit or risk assessment programme. "Every organisation
is different and every job is different. The baseline has to be a systematic
diagnosis of what is happening in [individual] companies now and how it can
be improved [by interventions]. It is more important to develop standards
for workplace counselling or stress management training."
Whatever the approach to stress management, Mr Briner believes it is time
for everyone to reconsider their relationship with work. "Over the past
20-30 years there has been too little emphasis on the positive qualities of
working life and too much on the negative. We need to remind ourselves that
work is not intrinsically dangerous to mental health. On the contrary, most
studies show that work is good for us."
Managers, too, must re-examine ingrained beliefs about stress. "It is not
enough [for managers] simply to remove the negative [aspects of work]. They
must look at the whole experience of the employee - what makes them happy
and fulfilled at work as well as angry and frustrated," he says. "They must
reinforce the positives - giving regular feedback and showing staff they
respect, value and trust them."
In the end, he says, stress management comes down to good management: get it right and you will go a long way towards eliminating stress in the