How we can better manage work-related stress

Written by: Nathan Buckley abd Libby Artingstall | Published:

With the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently reaffirming its commitment to tackling work-related stress it's more important than ever for organisations of all types and sizes to understand their obligations in this area.

As a sector waste and recycling is no stranger to how the HSE operates and the obligations they have under the law, but it is perhaps less used to dealing with non-physical health and safety issues such as workplace stress. What does the HSE's focus on the issue mean in reality?

Everyone's business

We are all aware that a deterioration in mental health can negatively affect someone's ability to interact with and understand others, to function, and to care for ourselves or others.

The HSE is focusing on work-related stress because while it is itself not considered a mental illness it is a significant risk factor for developing one. Prolonged work-related stress can lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical conditions.

Even without any legal obligations placed upon them, tackling the issue makes clear sense for businesses more broadly when you consider the following statistics:

  • More than 15 million days are lost at work every year because of work-related stress
  • 1.4 million workers are currently suffering from work-related stress
  • Stress, depression or anxiety are the most commonly-reported causes of work-related ill health in Great Britain
  • One in four people in the UK will experience mental ill health at some point in their life
  • Mental health problems are the largest single source of disability in the UK
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people under 35 and men under 50
  • Work-related stress accounts for 44% of all cases and 57% of all working days lost because of ill health
  • The overall economic cost is estimated to be £5 billion.

Risk management

What obligations does the law place on waste and recycling organisations? As things stand it requires all employers to assess the risk of work-related stress and put steps in place to tackle those risks, either by removing or reducing them as far as reasonably practicable. Although employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work, diagnosing and treating it is not their responsibility.

In the HSE's Health priority plan: work-related stress it states that it will develop a suite of leading indicators that will measure stress risk management performance in businesses/sectors.

The HSE's position is that work-related stress should be treated as any other workplace hazard. It wants to see a significant increase in the number of employers taking a proactive stance through the Management Standards approach (the HSE's approach for preventing stress at work), which helps identify and manage the six causes of stress at work: demands, control, change, relationships, support, and role.

Time for change

The HSE's continuing tough stance against those who breach their legal health and safety duties should encourage those in the waste and recycling industry to sit up and take note. In 2017/18 out of 6,000 investigations there were 8,940 enforcement notices and 517 prosecution cases, with a 95% conviction rate.

But how will this translate to work-related stress? With the HSE historically tackling physical (rather than mental) ill health, how does it propose to measure compliance and effectively enforce breaches across all industries, including waste and recycling?

Unlike for occupational lung disease and musculoskeletal disorders the HSE has not specifically pledged to prioritise interventions, inspection activity and enforcement on high-risk sectors/activities, of which waste and recycling forms part. It has simply stated that it "will provide an effective regulatory framework by researching the continued effectiveness of the Management Standards approach".

The HSE states that if an employer follows the Management Standards approach above they will be adopting a strategy that is considered suitable and sufficient. However, it will be interesting to see whether the HSE during routine inspections requests copies of risk assessments relating to work-related stress and whether failure to have on will result in an improvement notice being issued.

Certainly if the regulatory regime is to have teeth it needs to be supported by an effective programme of pursuing those who fail to follow those standards.

The mental health of individuals at work is now being treated as an issue that deserves recognition and respect. Only time will tell if the HSE's commitment will be sufficient to drive change, or if it will need to be accompanied by tougher enforcement.

Either way most organisations are now waking up to the impact stress and mental health can have on their people and their businesses operations. The HSE's commitment to tackling it should certainly add impetus.

Nathan Buckley is legal director at Clyde and Co and Libby Artingstall is co-founder and director of Team Mental Health

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