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Work-related stress - why it's time to focus on the organisation, not the individual

October 2017


Most workplace stress interventions focus on the individual, either strengthening their resilience or providing the treatment required to help them recover. But, while there's a need for these interventions, employers should focus much more on thehttp://www.aon.com/unitedkingdom/employee-benefits/healthcare-and-risk-benefits/wellbeing-financial-physical-mental.jsp organisation and how it contributes to employees' wellbeing.

It's easy to see why employers focus on the individual rather than the organisation. Implementing secondary and tertiary interventions such as mental health first aid training and employee assistance programmes is much simpler than addressing an organisation's culture and the way it operates.

It also takes less time to demonstrate a return on investment with these individual-focused interventions than it does with a primary intervention. For example, a series of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions could have an almost instant effect on an employee struggling to cope in the workplace, but gauging the impact of giving employees greater control over their workload could take months, even years. Management can also struggle with the implications of moving the focus from the individual to the organisation. It can be difficult to accept that the cause of stress lies with the company rather than the individual.

Primary benefits

But focusing attention on the organisation rather than the individual can deliver benefits. While individual focused secondary and tertiary interventions concentrate on damage limitation by addressing the results of psychosocial risks, primary interventions address the sources of these risks.

It's also a much more preventative approach to tackling work-related stress. By identifying the sources of psychosocial risk in the work environment and either eliminating or modifying them, it should lead to fewer employees needing to turn to secondary and tertiary interventions.

To support this, research has found that removing exposure to hazards should be the most effective approach in the medium to long term. This should reduce the number of employees suffering from work-related stress, driving down the cost of treatment and absence but also pushing up positive factors such as productivity and engagement.

Refocus your attention

Although there are challenges, there are some simple and effective ways to increase the focus on the organisation. For starters, consider looking at your health and wellbeing budget more holistically.

As an example, rather than allocating a pot for your medical insurance, another for your group risk benefits and a third for your wellbeing initiatives, have one overarching budget which is used to achieve your health and wellbeing objectives. Doing this makes it easier to shift the allocation of resource from secondary and tertiary interventions to primary ones.

Occupational health can also help to change the way an organisation tackles work-related stress. Research has found that organisations with a high quality of general occupational health and safety management are three times more likely to have procedures in place to manage psychosocial risk.

There are also plenty of free resources available. For example the Health and Safety Executive's Management Standards is a key primary intervention tool that aims to reduce work-related stress. It covers six key areas of work design that are sources of work-related stress, namely demands, control, support, relationships, role and change, and seeks to help organisations identify problems and establish good practice.

Cultural change

Making mental health part of your culture can also help to remove the taboos. This makes it easier for employees to talk about it and to highlight any issues they might have in the workplace.

There's plenty of support to help you do this. For instance, the This is Me - in the City campaign, which is led by the Lord Mayor's Appeal, is encouraging employees to share their experiences of mental health problems with colleagues. Mental health charity Mind also has free resources to support employers.

Mental health champions can also help to set the agenda. These are often, but not exclusively, a senior employee who has suffered mental health problems and is happy to talk about their experiences.

A variation on this is a mental health first aider. These are employees who are specifically trained to respond, signpost people to appropriate support and generally be a safe place for people with mental health issues. These first aiders can support line manager training and provide a valuable resource, especially where it might be the line manager who is causing work-related stress. As a result, we'd recommend having one mental health first aider for every 100 or so employees.

A rounded approach

While increasing the focus on the organisation as the source of psychosocial risks can help to reduce work-related stress, this approach shouldn't be considered in isolation. Indeed, to prevent and manage these risks as effectively as possible, it's prudent to take a comprehensive approach and implement primary, secondary and tertiary interventions.

Taking this rounded approach to tackling work-related stress will ensure that risks are well managed and eliminated wherever possible, but also that employees have the resilience to deal with stress plus access to treatment if required.



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