Opinion

The HSE’s chance to drive better stress management

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH
Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

Spare a thought for the beleaguered leaders of the HSE. For years they were told by government ministers to avoid mission creep, to stick to their brief of legal compliance rather than encouraging best practice. Those ministers have also whittled away their budget and made them ever-more dependent on generating income through fee-for-intervention and selling their services overseas.

Now they are at the wrong end of a major report, the Stevenson-Farmer independent review of workplace mental health (see p 13), which argues the opposite. It says the the mental health crisis that has engaged the royal family and led the prime minister to call for more effort from the National Health Service, must be tackled in the workplace and that the HSE should be proactive in this area.

As I discovered recently at both the World Congress for Health and Safety in Singapore and the conference at the A+A trade show in Germany, the HSE’s stress management standards (bit.ly/1Jmvt8K) offer the clearest available, practical advice for addressing a major source of work-related mental health issues.

The sexual predation scandal that has transfixed Hollywood, the theatre and parliament in recent weeks is partly about the exploitation of usually young people’s ambitions to “get on” in their film, theatre or political careers, but such exploitation is present to a lesser extent in other types of workplaces. In many business sectors employers have developed mechanisms and tools to discourage and penalise this type of abuse of power.

Instead of saying ‘this is a new issue’, the Mates in Mind framework will be very comfortable for those already reducing serious accidents

Similarly, the HSE stress management standards spell out what good employers should do to reduce the risk of the workload, working relationships and management behaviour generating or exacerbating unsustainable psychological pressure on workers. Their implementation can contribute greatly to creating a workplace that is almost a haven from pressures arising in other aspects of workers’ lives or from intrinsic mental health conditions.

That is the aim of the Mates in Mind programme, launched by the Health in Construction Leadership Group working in partnership with Mind, the Samaritans and Mental Health First Aid and hosted by the fifth partner, the British Safety Council. Currently aimed at the construction sector, the initiative is designed to speak the language of safety and health blended with that of mental healthcare. Instead of saying, “this is a new issue and everything you do has to be new” the framework will be very comfortable for those already doing a great job in reducing serious accidents in construction. We seem to be learning that playing to our strengths is best.

Perhaps that is what the Stevenson-Farmer report is getting at, that the HSE may not have focused on mental ill health other than on how work may cause problems, but there is an opportunity to build on the strengths of its capabilities and develop a broader programme to make workplaces psychologically safer just as we are doing to make them physically safe. That raises questions about the executive’s resources and whether fee-for-intervention has harmed relationships between the here-to-help-you regulator and businesses.

Austerity and deregulation may not be the most helpful launchpad for a significant change in how we tackle mental ill health at work, but the enthusiasm with which the issue is being taken up may itself help us all to challenge the presumptions that both tax cuts and the cutting of “red tape” are always desirable.

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH

Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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