With 12.5 million working days lost to stress in 2016/17 (1), it's an issue that no organisation can afford to ignore. But, in spite of the moral, legal and business reasons for tackling it, few organisations have robust stress management interventions in place.
In particular, although the last decade has seen considerable growth in the take-up of secondary and tertiary interventions such as mental health resilience training and employee assistance programmes (EAP), many organisations are failing to implement primary interventions. These are interventions aimed specifically at modifying or eliminating the sources of stress in the workplace rather than the secondary and tertiary ones which focus on the individual.
For example, in its European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (2), the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) found that only between 25% and 30% of organisations have procedures in place of primary interventions.
But overlooking these primary interventions can significantly lessen the effectiveness of a stress management strategy. Put simply, taking away the cause of stress in an organisation should be much easier and lower cost than having to manage the cases of lots of employees suffering from stress.
Under the radar
Although it makes perfect sense on paper, there are plenty of reasons why primary interventions aren't on every employer’s radar.
One of the key reasons is a lack of technical support and guidance. If work-related stress is an issue, it may be easier to implement an EAP or train line managers to spot the symptoms, than it is to identify and tackle the root cause.
This is exacerbated by the fact that, with only limited research undertaken in this area, there's still plenty of uncertainty around which primary interventions are the most effective.
For example, although the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) Management Standards (3) are regarded as a key tool to help organisations reduce work-related stress, there is an absence of studies to prove the impact of the interventions that are recommended. Further research into this would certainly be welcomed.
Lack of responsibility
There can also be confusion around who is responsible for stress management. As well as being a health and safety issue, it also falls into the hands of line managers as they are responsible for the day-to-day people management. Unfortunately this dual ownership can mean that it gets overlooked completely.
Instead, while on a micro level line managers should be responsible for implementing and monitoring any interventions, on a macro level, health and safety should ultimately have responsibility. This includes ensuring line managers have the necessary tools to identify the early signs of work-related stress among their employees and take the steps required to support them.
Head in the sand
The fear factor can also deter organisations from delving too deeply into work-related stress. For these employers, not knowing is preferable to discovering it's a significant issue that needs to be addressed.
Others put it down to the sensitivity of the issue. For example, 53% of the organisations who took part in the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (2) cited this as the reason it was difficult to deal with psychosocial risks.
Unfortunately, although this approach may save some headaches in the short-term, if work-related stress and its causes are ignored, the problem simply gets worse. It's sad but possibly unsurprising that the level of work-related stress in the UK is high, with HSE statistics showing it accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases (1), and, with the numbers remaining broadly flat for more than a decade, showing little sign of improvement.
Whether due to a lack of technical support or the fear factor, there are ways to make it easier to get to grips with primary interventions.
For starters there's plenty of assistance available. The HSE's Management Standards are a good starting point for identifying potential sources of stress within a workplace. It can also suggest interventions that will help to reduce these stressors. Similarly, employee benefit consultants such as Aon have experience in running stress audits for organisations. As well as benefitting from their expertise, there are merits in using an independent organisation to undertake this audit.
Support may also be available internally. For example the EU-OSHA survey found that organisations with a high quality of general occupational health and safety management are nearly three times more likely to have procedures in place to manage work-related stress. Tapping into this expertise could have broad benefits for an employer.
But, whether an organisation brings in the experts or uses its own expertise, taking a proactive approach to identifying and managing the sources of stress within the workplace is a must.
(2) https://osha.europa.eu/en/node/6745/file_view (page 45)
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