Opinion

Managing the wellbeing-stress-mental health continuum

Editor, IOSH Magazine

Stress management and employee mental health bubbled up in the middle of the past decade as business issues overdue for attention.

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued Stress Management Standards in 2004 as a framework for employers to check whether they were putting workers under unreasonable pressure and depriving them of the support and resources that would allow them to work efficiently.

In the global recession at the end of the decade, the corporate interest in stress waned as many organisations adjusted to budget cuts by retrenching to safety management.

As economic skies have lightened, the issue has crept back up the agenda, this time accompanied by a broader concern about worker physical wellbeing, driven by increasingly worrying data confirming what we always half-knew: poor diet and lack of exercise correlate with higher sickness absence.

Public campaigns to end the informal code of silence about mental health problems have also created a following wind. Consciousness is spreading that mental illness is no more a sign of weakness than a physical ailment and should not define those coping with it in the eyes of friends, family and colleagues.

Both the recent Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employment and the government’s unqualified acceptance of its recommendations reflect the growing belief that poor wellbeing, work stress and mental health conditions are all parts of the same spectrum and that poor management of its elements are contributors to the UK’s problem of low productivity.

As a result of the government endorsement of the review, the HSE will now be tasked with developing new guidance that goes beyond its previous functional approach which focused on work stress in isolation.

Good thing too. With a holistic approach to mental health comes the acceptance that employees have home stressors, whether emotional or material, that reduce their tolerance of whatever they have to cope with in working hours.

If we see employees as containers likely to come part-filled with these kinds of domestic concerns, it becomes more important to keep the levels of demand on them within practicable limits to avoid stress levels overflowing, leading to sick leave. (One day we may take the same expanded view of exposure to physical agents such as diesel fumes.)

This approach does not come close to trying to wrap anyone in cotton wool. Instead it pushes organisations to tackle factors inimical to good performance, such as bullying and underresourcing.

The broad view recognises that employers cannot shrug off stress – as the HSE did in 2007 – by saying it is multifactorial, with non work contributors, so it is not our job to control. Instead, as the Stevenson/Farmer report acknowledged, it should be managed well precisely because there is a non-work component to the hazard that we cannot easily contain.

The Stress Management Standards were a good resource for early attempts to tackle the problem. Whatever the HSE does to build on them now will be welcome.

Louis Wustemann is editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

Comments

Meta-analytic studies show there is no clear statistically significant relationships between workplace stress and actual outcomes such as cancer (Heikkilä,et al, 2013), diabetes (Sui, 2016), coronary heart disease (Virtanen, 2103) or sickness absenteeism (Darr & Johns, 2008). Conversely, symptoms of psychological stress are over reported in nearly all “stress” surveys (Goodwin et al.,,2103). In contrast to the 480 p.a. GP referrals for workplace stress, the 2016/17 RIDDOR database shows 137 accident fatalities, 2761 Industrial Disease deaths, and 70,000 serious injuries. These actual numbers from RIDDOR and Coroner reports tend to be repeated annually. Clearly, a greater problem than workplace stress.

It's right that HSE's stand on stress should recognise and encompass the full breadth of people's experience of mental health, both at work and in life outside work and potentially affected by it.

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