Stress under pressure

Stress management needs the support of the whole firm – starting from the top. By Carole Spiers

Many employers do not realise that since the introduction of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, all organisations with five or more employees have had a legal duty to conduct regular risk assessments of workplace hazards, including psychosocial hazards such as stress.

The Health and Safety Executive has published new management standards for work-related stress, due to be launched on 3 November, designed to ensure that organisations address key aspects of workplace stress, such as demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. As well as following this new guidance, there are a variety of other measures employers should also introduce.

A stress policy should be implemented in conjunction with staff liaison groups, and commitment should begin at the most senior level.
There is little point in introducing stress-management training for managers, for example, if the partners have little commitment to minimising or eliminating excessive pressure.

When recruiting, it is important that both the organisation and applicant understand the requirements of the post and the potential pressures involved. One conclusion of the Court of Appeal case Hatton v Sutherland [2002] was that “there are no occupations that should be regarded as intrinsically dangerous to mental health”. It is essential to combine an appropriate selection policy with sufficient job-specific, practical training, to enable individuals to work within their capabilities.

Teams known as first-contact counselling teams, made up of volunteers from the organisation who are trained in basic counselling skills, are often used to provide employees with an ‘active listening’ service. Effective communication is often neglected in management training, yet it is essential to good management. This includes ‘active listening’, where the listener engages with the person they are listening to and responds appropriately. Good communication at all levels will help ensure everyone can work with confidence, reducing the opportunities for stress to develop.

For stress management to become integral to corporate culture, initiatives must be introduced that will raise awareness of work-related stress. In particular, recognising the early warning signs and symptoms should become integral to management strategy. This can be achieved by monitoring sickness absence, carrying out confidential staff surveys, observing working relationships, questioning changes in attitude and behaviour and so on.

In Hatton, the Court of Appeal ruled that “any employer who offered a confidential counselling service was unlikely to be found in breach of duty of care by the courts”. Counselling should therefore be regarded as an intervention to be included alongside other supportive services available to employees.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) help employees to access confidential counselling and information services, but they should not detract from the importance of line managers. Nor must an application to an EAP be interpreted by managers as suggesting a lack of confidence in their own ability to deal with stress-related issues.

Depending on the nature of your organisation, concierge services or complementary therapies, such as reflexology, yoga, massage etc, may also be of benefit. Typically, however, they should be incorporated within a holistic approach to work-related stress, rather than being expected to resolve underlying problems on their own. If an organisation introduces these types of ‘stress-busting’ initiatives without a solid foundation of stress management training and employee counselling support, they risk adding to problems of work-related stress through frustration, disillusion, and a belief among employees that the true causes of stress are not being taken seriously.

Carole Spiers is an occupational business stress consultant at the Carole Spiers Group