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HSE focus on stress at work
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has recently launched a number of initiatives to help prevent work-related stress. Stress is a major cause of sickness absence and is estimated to cost over £5bn a year in Great Britain with the impact on individuals and their families often immeasurable. The most recent HSE statistics show that 828,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2019/20 which accounted for 51% of all work-related illness – up from 44% the previous year. With the issues caused by Covid-19 and working at home, many expect the trend to continue to rise.
Health and safety law requires employers to ensure, -so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This means making sure that workers are fit to carry out their work safely, implementing health or medical surveillance, risk assessing activities and introducing control measures to reduce foreseeable risks.
The HSE is promoting the management standards approach to tacking work-related stress. This focuses on the six standards which are the primary sources of stress at work – demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Each standard requires systems in place which respond to individual concerns. The idea is that this approach will help prevent work-related stress and employers who implement it properly will be able to demonstrate that they have met their legal duties. This is important because for the HSE to take enforcement action, there does not need to be an actual injury – just a real risk of injury. So when the HSE visit work places following accidents, tip offs or to conduct spot checks/routine visits, stress at work will be on their radar and their guidance mandates that they will consider investigating concerns where:
- There is evidence that a number of staff are currently experiencing work-related stress or stress-related ill health, (i.e. that it is not an individual case)
- HSE is not the appropriate body to investigate concerns solely related to individual cases of bullying or harassment, but may consider this if there is evidence of a wider organisational failing, and
- HSE would expect concerns about work-related stress to have been raised already with the employer, and for the employer to have been given sufficient time to respond accordingly.
Whilst the HSE has not yet prosecuted a stress at work case, inspectors tell me that they are investigating concerns and enforcement action is likely to follow if their charging criteria is met. So putting in place reasonably practicable measures to address the risks faced by those at a foreseeable risk of a stress-related injury is key to both the mental health of employees and success of the business. Practically, employers should review their safety management systems, access areas for improvement, be pro-active with audits, document good safety practices, properly manage and investigate causes of stress at work and support employees.