Andrew Kingscott, one of the HSE’s principal inspectors, told IOSH’s National Safety and Health Conference for the public sector that stress remained one of the regulator’s top three health priorities.
He said austerity in the public sector had led to a “downward spiral” as workers struggled with increasing workloads and “what is already a scant resource is now being reduced further through ill health due to work-related stress”. As a result, the highest incidence rates of stress are recorded in public services.
The latest statistics from the HSE show that around 595,000 UK employees reported feeling stressed, depressed or anxious in 2017-18. The conditions accounted for 15.4 million working days – or 57% of the total – lost to ill health.
Describing these as “shocking”, Kingscott said he was working with one government department that claimed it was losing around £12m a year to work-related stress.
He told delegates that the standards, introduced by the HSE in 2004 to help organisations to assess and manage the risks to employee wellbeing posed by stress, were missing the mark on driving down the number of cases.
“The management standards have been in place for 14 years and you think, ‘Hold on a minute, we’re not really making progress’,” he said. “If we had another piece of legislation or a standard that had been in [place] for 14 years and we were missing it by a country mile, I don’t think we’d feel too bad if the regulator was taking some robust enforcement. This is something the HSE is going to look to promote more.”
Under the action plan the regulator is to determine which issues will trigger an investigation and develop operational guidance to ensure any enforcement action taken by its inspectors is consistent. For example, they will look at whether an organisation meets “baseline” requirements for workplace stress, including risk assessments, procedures and ongoing management processes.
Kingscott said: “What I think you will see is a much clearer indication to frontline inspectors as to in what circumstances we will start to take enforcement action and improvement notices to get you to where you need to be. We’re going to be much clearer on when the HSE is going to be involved and what that involvement will look like.”
The HSE is increasing its emphasis on the standards for managing workplace stress after its 2016 Helping Great Britain Work Well strategy, which covers tackling ill health among other themes, failed “to gather the momentum it needed to”, Kingscott admitted.
“We’ve jumped on the easy bits; we’ve done some of the wellbeing stuff and put in place mental health first aiders. But I’m not sure [this] is the same as we do with all the other issues in terms of the hierarchy of control: prevention, reduction and then control.”
He continued: “This isn’t just something that’s nice to do; this is something that you are required to do by law […] It is difficult, and I think for many people it’s been on the ‘too difficult’ pile for a long, long time but we now need to start making a certain effort.”
Musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease are the HSE’s other two top strategic priorities for the next three to five years. However, Kingscott said work-related road risk, violence and aggression, and voluntary workers were “emerging priorities” that needed to be addressed too.