" The HSE Management Standards approach would appear to provide a useful tool to help organisations, but organisations themselves must demonstrate long-term commitment if they are serious in tackling these issues. " Boughton

Common mental health problems affect a large number of working individuals and are estimated to be a significant cause of work-related illness. Helping to prevent the onset of such conditions and successfully manage and treat them is of great importance to the UK from both an economic and moral standpoint. Employers are increasingly being asked to take a more active role in this agenda, using the workplace as a way to promote mental wellness.

The most commonly used term when discussing mental health at work is ’stress’, but there is considerable variation in the way that the term is used and understood. Despite the fact that there is no objective or agreed criteria for the definition or measurement of any clinical syndrome of ‘stress’, stress is included with depression and anxiety as the second most common cause of occupational illness in statistics compiled by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), leading to 13.8 million working days lost in 2006/07. As such, the HSE aims to encourage organisations to work towards reducing stress. The definition used by the HSE for operational purposes is that stress is ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’.

The HSE has a long standing research output concerned with work related stress. More recently, it has undertaken significant consultation and development work to produce practical help for employers. The HSE’s Management Standards for Work-related Stress are designed to “represent a set of conditions that reflect high levels of health, well being and organisational performance”. The standards are aimed at anyone with responsibility for tackling work-related stress within organisations from human resource managers to trade union representatives and line managers. The standards themselves are a) a set of the main stressors commonly found in the workplace, and b) a process by which employers can assess and take action on issues specific to them which relate to these stressors. Their aim is to provide practical information, advice and tools on how to assess the risks from work-related stress within an organisation. The process is not a legal requirement, but is designed to assist organisations to meet their legal duties in this area.

The HSE has funded two specific interventions working actively with employers to implement the standards and the standards process. The first involved 65 volunteer organisations that agreed to fully pilot the management standards process over a period of 18 months with the support of designated HSE and Acas contacts. The second intervention provided support to a wider group of employers in the form of workshops and masterclasses.

IES recently conducted evaluations of these two interventions based on the views of employers, HSE and Acas stress contacts. Using data from this research, in the remainder of this article we examine what worked well in terms of stress and absence management and where organisations experienced difficulties.

Success factors
From our research, we found that the main factors that contribute to successful stress and absence management included:

  • the importance of good data collection in organisations. If organisations are not sure of the situation in terms of absence and stress among their staff, they have no starting point from which to improve;
  • senior management commitment to these issues, and ensuring that stress and absence management remain on the senior management agenda;
  • good implementation of policy on the part of line managers, who are key in terms of day-to-day stress and absence management. Line managers need support, both in terms of knowing the policy and being able to implement it in a uniform, but sensitive, way, and in terms of having backup from HR and occupational health staff to deal with specific issues; and
  • creating an organisational culture that can identify and acknowledge stress, so as to ensure that employees and line managers feel comfortable in dealing with the issue.

Barriers to successful stress and absence management
We found that organisations were serious in wanting to manage absence and stress effectively and appreciated the Management Standards themselves. However, policies and procedures in these two areas were not always embedded across the whole of the organisation: projects were often targeting specific sections of organisations, rather than the organisation as a whole.
Further, organisations had reached varying stages in their implementation of the Management Standards process. The main barrier to progress was maintaining sufficient momentum to overcome any organisational difficulties or delays. Other difficulties included obtaining lasting senior management buy-in to stress and absence management, finding sufficient resources to address these issues, and implementing action plans on stress.

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Lasting impacts?
In terms of impacts of the HSE interventions, organisations did not, on the whole, have access to hard data that could help them identify problems, or help them assess the impacts of their work. In particular, sickness absence data which clearly identified stress-related absence was rare. However, there was evidence of some impact, such as organisations subsequently making changes to policies and procedures, including absence and stress management more routinely in line managers’ training, gaining increased awareness of and confidence in dealing with stress and absence, and being able to focus more on these issues.

The successful management of absence and stress is a complex and long-term issue that cannot be solved by organisations overnight. It requires significant commitment on the part of senior management and those involved in the day-to-day management of stress and absence projects. The HSE Management Standards approach would appear to provide a useful tool to help organisations, but organisations themselves must demonstrate long-term commitment if they are serious in tackling these issues.

Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies (andrea.broughton@employment-studies.co.uk)
Claire Tyers, Associate Director, Institute for Employment Studies (claire.tyers@employment-studies.co.uk)

Andrea and Claire are speaking at the Health at Work Summit Click here for more information.