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

reduce it.

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

organis-ational change.

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