Risky business

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first_img Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article Preventionis better than cure in the case of stress. And with HSE management guidelineson how to conduct a thorough stress risk assessment, organisations should begrappling with the problem before further working days are lost. nic patonreportsManagingstress can feel a bit like sailing a ship through waters where the maps are ofthe old-fashioned ‘here be dragons’ variety. Stress may be an increasing menacein the workplace, but when it comes to tackling it, much of the work being doneis still in its infancy.Itis not hard to see the scale of the problem: the Health & Safety Executive(HSE) estimates that about 13.5 million working days a year are lost to it. Buthow to curb it effectively and fairly is something that employers, and the HSE,are still struggling to grapple with. Thestress management standards being introduced by the HSE early next year, andits decision in August to order West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust toreduce the levels of stress faced by staff or face unlimited fines, has put theonus firmly on prevention.Innormal circumstances, the management of any health and safety-related problemwill start with the risk assessment. But, with stress, even the process of riskassessment becomes much more problematic. Stress is not a medically definedcondition; people react to different stressors and different levels of stressin different ways. Stress can also occur because of unpredictable, one-offevents, such as having suddenly to cover for an absent colleague. And employersneed to recognise that unforeseen stresses and strains can be brought into theworkplace from the home environment. All these elements can make it hard, ifnot impossible, to predict, and so extremely challenging to manage.Oftenthe best course of action, suggests Laurie Anstis, associate at employmentlawyer Boyes Turner, is to look back at any clusters of absence and try topredict from there what types of roles, scenarios or business decisions mightbecome workplace stressors.“Lookingback over patterns and saying ‘this was a risky situation’, or ‘doing that wasvaluable’, will at least give you something to go on,” he says. “Unlessyou have a look at the figures, you may not realise that there are kinds of rolesthat can be particularly stressful or where people may be vulnerable.”Absencedata and staff turnover can both be invaluable and can help to flag up bullyingmanagers, says Joan Lewis, of Advisory, Consulting and Training Associates. “Ifyou have a particular person who is causing a bullying problem you can oftentrack them through the company because when they change jobs there is often anincrease in short-term absence in the department they have moved to. Withstress, people who can, tend to leave and those that can’t go off sick,” shesays. Itis also worth being aware that presenteeism, as much as absenteeism, may be aclear sign of stress, she adds. Staying at your desk until all hours can showthat a person feels their workload is out of control, that they are notmanaging their time or productivity well and, sometimes, that they are scaredto be seen to leave because of a bullying culture.Indrawing up its management standards, the HSE has put on its website a model ofhow it believes a stress risk assessment should be carried out. This suggestsfour steps:–identifying the hazards–establishing who might be harmed and how–developing an action plan–taking action and evaluating and sharing work.Itsuggests there are seven central stressors that firms should look at: demandsof the job, levels of control, support, relationships; roles, chang, andculture. BristolCity Council is one of 24 organisations putting in place pilot schemes beforethe standards go live next year. Its experiences, and any feedback from thewider community, will be incorporated into the final standards when they arepublished next year.Thecouncil, which employs 18,000 staff, has been developing a two-stage pilotusing 45 to 50 volunteers from its neighbourhood housing department. A briefingplan was drawn up and the volunteers received a two-stage anonymous paperquestionnaire, which had an 87 per cent response rate.Thequestions asked about the demands on them, levels of control and support, theiroffice relationships, their individual roles within the organisation and howthe organisation deals with change.Theteam behind the pilot is now feeding that information into the HSE’s analysistool, where it will be transformed into coloured charts and graphs, and whereanything below a red line is seen as being of issue.Thestandards estimate that about 20 per cent of employees in an organisation arelikely to be very or extremely stressed at any one time. To meet the standards,at least 85 per cent of an organisation’s employees will need to be satisfiedwith the demands put on them, the level of control that they have and thesupport on offer.Whenit comes to managing relationships, roles and change, the standard will beachieved if at least 65 per cent of employees indicate they are satisfied.  Atthis early stage, the analysis is more at a departmental than a company-widelevel, and is more about assessing what sort of stress levels there are andwhether further intervention is required. But by suggesting acceptable andunacceptable percentages, the HSE standards set helpful benchmarks towardswhich organisations can aspire.Ifneeded, a second questionnaire will follow. It will be designed to tackle areasof concern, and includes a range of more detailed questions. Monitoring andreviewing is most likely to be carried out through conventional audits,employee review meetings and reviewing of the risk assessment process. Thecouncil has had a stress policy in place since January 2001 and isincorporating its own experiences during that time into the pilot process, sayssenior safety adviser Simon Hayward.“Whenit came to developing a risk assessment, it was very hard for us to get ourheads around it. How do we look at something that should be almost on anindividual basis? Normally you need to look at tasks, then assess them, butwith stress it’s down to the individual,” he says.Itwas impractical to examine each role in every department, so a departmentalapproach was needed. A bespoke risk assessment process was developed – designedto “let us dip a toe in the water”, says Hayward – to enable the council toassess whether a particular area or department was high, medium or low risk.Theprocess consisted of four steps: a preliminary assessment with line managers;formulating where the hazards might be; assessing and trying to quantify therisk factors; and drawing up an action plan (with action to follow wherenecessary).Areasthat needed to be looked at included the management culture, shiftworkingpatterns and job design, he says, accompanied by issues such as their severity,what harmful effects might be likely and the effect of that exposure.“Forinstance, in my job as safety adviser one of the big things is the reactivenature of the job. It can be a problem if you get a call at 4pm asking you tocome down to a site. You feel that things are out of your control,” he says.“Afew years ago there was a decision to decentralise the team, but it was foundthat made it much harder because there was not the support mechanism anymore.It’s now been pulled back together so there is always someone on hand to helpand they have tried to make sure that, if you are out of the department, you donot feel on your own.”Ithas also been a question of making it clear to employees that a stiff upper lipand simply trying to soak up the pressure until it becomes too much are notalways the best ways forward. “Thereis a process of educating both parties about the difference between stress andpressure, but there is a long way to go. We are trying to instil a generalawareness that saying you cannot cope does not necessarily mean you have failedand is not necessarily a bad thing,” Hayward says. Anotherfirm piloting the stress management standards is utility company Innogy, thename behind NPower, which manages coal, oil and gas-fired power stations aroundthe country.Innogyrecognised the need for a risk assessment for stress sometime ago, formallylaunching the process in October 2002, says Claire Forty, senior occupationalhealth nurse. Therisk assessment tool was drawn up by an external occupational psychologist andcombines an online scoring tool with a risk assessment tool.“It’slike a traffic light system, with either red, amber or green. Groups of peopleare given little red bars if there is an issue that needs investigating,” saysForty.Inthe first stage of the process department managers, after an initial briefing by an OH nurse, receivetraining to help them understand how stress manifests itself, what the commonsymptoms and causes are and advises on what to do next.Thecourse also advises on how to conduct a stress-based risk assessment, coveringareas such as appropriate interventions, what sort of reasonable adjustmentsmight they be expected to make and so on.Theassessment is carried out online, usually taking 10 minutes, and is assessedexternally. The data is fed back to the manager, who is expected to meet thestaff as a group and discuss the findings.Thequestions are divided into six sections, all linked to the scoring system, andmainly follow the HSE-set categories. They look at: culture; demands (what istheir workload and how much are they exposed to physical hazards?); control(how much say do they have?); relationships (are there any issues of bullyingand harassment?); role (do they understand their role in the organisation?);and support (what training is available, what support is there from peers andline management?). Theprocess has been piloted among 500 staff and nine managers but, says Forty,Innogy hopes to roll it out across the company, which employs about 14,000staff, later this month.Theprocess is supposed to be left a minimum of three months before being repeatedonline to assess whether actions taken have worked, she adds.Forboth the HSE and the pilot organisations, it is early days and much work isstill to be done. What is clear is that, however good the process, stress issuch a nebulous thing that trying to show which stressors are the most harmfulin the workplace, exactly how they operate and how you reduce them, is a realchallenge. Thereis no right or wrong answer, no right or wrong way to carry out a risk assessmentfor stress. That’s why HSE’s efforts in trying to set benchmark standards is sovital, points out ACT’s Lewis.Whatis also clear is that doing nothing is no longer an option. Employers are mostat risk from litigation when it can be shown that harm could reasonably havebeen foreseen, but that nothing was done to prevent it. Similarly, employersneed to be wary in assuming that simply offering a confidential counsellingservice – in line with the Court of Appeal’s decision in Sutherland v Hatton –is enough by itself.“Illnessesthat arise from stress are in exactly the same category as if it is a brokenleg from tripping over a loose wire. You have to have a mental picture thatasks ‘have we got a guard in front of the machine?’,” says Lewis.“Therisk has to be significant, but the only way you are going to find out is bydoing an assessment. You have to show evidence that you have tried to carry outa risk assessment and that you have tried to address those issues. If you don’tdo it, you are going to get clobbered,” she says. Related posts:No related photos. Risky businessOn 1 Oct 2003 in Personnel Todaylast_img read more