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Chris Austin from HSE talks about workplace stress

31 October 2022

Chris Austin from HSE, Great Britain's health and safety regulator, talks about the challenges, considerations and solutions in relation to workplace stress.


Chris Austin, Head of Training and Events from HSE

The challenge facing employers in relation to stress and mental health remains a stark one. In 2020/21, stress, anxiety and depression was the number one cause of work related illness, accounting for more half of all ill-health cases, with some 822,000 workers being affected . It is estimated that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £56 billion per year .

In the workplace, the risks presented by stress are often not treated in the same way as physical risks. In most cases this is because employers are simply not aware of their legal duties, how to recognise and respond to the signs of stress, or the ways in which they can proactively support their workers' mental wellbeing.

Whose responsibility is workplace stress?

A question often asked is 'who should have responsibility for stress?'… does it sit with HR, health and safety, occupational health or line managers? In reality, because of the wide reaching impact on business that managing stress can have, it needs to be considered right across organisations, and the question of oversight can only be answered by leaders in relation to their own businesses.

In terms of legal responsibility, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a duty on employers to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all employees. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require a suitable and sufficient assessment of workplace risks to be carried out, and for employers to make proportionate arrangements for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of the preventive and protective measures in relation to these risks. As the leading cause of workplace ill-health, having a robust and meaningful stress risk assessment should be a key part of this management activity.

What causes stress in the workplace?

HSE identifies six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. These are…

  • Demands - workers are not able to cope with the demands of their jobs;
  • Control - they are unable to control the way they do their work;
  • Support - they don't feel that they receive enough information, guidance and pastoral care;
  • Relationships - they are having trouble with relationships at work, or are being bullied;
  • Role - they don't fully understand their role and responsibilities; and
  • Change - they are not engaged when a business is undergoing change.

Stress affects everyone differently. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may also affect how an individual responds to work pressures.

But sitting back and waiting for stress to negatively impact your business is not a fait accompli, by talking to workers and teams and having an understanding of stress, employers can proactively prevent, manage, reduce stress in workplaces.

Resources, tools and support to help managers

The HSE Management Standards are a set of conditions that if implemented, help organisations by:

  • Demonstrating good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment approach which considers the main risk factors, helping employers focus on the underlying causes and their prevention, and providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress;
  • Allowing assessment of the current situation using pre-existing data, surveys and other techniques; and
  • Promoting active discussions and partnership working with employees and their representatives, to help decide on practical improvements that can be made.

On a practical level, there are a number of resources available. HSE's Working Minds campaign provides a suite of these to help businesses recognise the signs of work-related stress and make tackling issues routine using the '5 Rs', five simple steps to Reach out, Recognise, Respond, Reflect, and make it Routine. It also includes the HSE talking toolkits, which are designed to help managers talk with workers as part of their overall approach to preventing and managing work-related stress.

The Stress Indicator Tool is an online survey designed to gather data anonymously from employees, which can be used in the risk assessment element of HSE's Management Standards approach. It has both free and paid versions depending on the size of organisations.

HSE also offers training to managers and workplaces in how to respond to the challenges presented by workplace stress. A qualification recently developed jointly with health and safety examinations body NEBOSH, the NEBOSH HSE Certificate in Managing Workplace Stress is aimed at anyone responsible for (or with an interest in) employee wellbeing, including HR, health and safety and occupational health practitioners, line managers and supervisors. Similarly, its Developing Manager Capability course is specifically designed for those with responsibility for individual case management and/or charged with conducting risk assessments for stress.

Visit HSE at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition to find out more

On 9-10 November, representatives from HSE will be attending CIPD's Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester to talk to HR colleagues about the scale of the challenge posed by workplace stress, and how they can be managed within organisations.

There will also be an exhibition stand where delegates can speak directly to HSE psychologists, policy experts and members of the Customer Solutions Group about employer responsibilities, the management standards and the support available to help ensure compliance and impact.

About the author

Chris Austin is the Head of Training and Events at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Great Britain's regulator for workplace health and safety. Working alongside HSE's science, regulatory and policy experts, Chris and his team develop engaging and relevant solutions that help employers from all sectors to manage their risks, and embed a positive health and safety culture.

Earlier this year, HSE launched its new 10 year strategy, Protecting People and Places. One of the key priorities for the regulator is the reduction of work related ill-health, with a specific focus on mental health and stress. HSE has committed to using its collective resource to focus on this problem, delivering interventions that have a positive impact.

To find out more about the strategy, visit the HSE website. For information training, events, products and support available, visit the HSE solutions portal, or connect with Chris on Linkedin.

*HSE (2021) Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain
** Deloitte (2022) Mental health and employers report

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