Stress in the Workplace

More than one in four workers are affected by work-related stress in the European Union. 1

People's mental and physical health can be adversely affected by aspects of their working environment, which produce feelings of anxiety and sometimes acute distress. Factors such as long hours, workload, uncertain expectations and very significantly, lack of control over work tasks, can lead to intense feelings of being unable to cope with such pressures and if prolonged this can lead to short as well as longer term damage to physical as well as mental health. But like many other kinds of contemporary health and safety issue (e.g. noise, manual handling injury and even noise induced hearing loss) the causes of stress in individuals are not wholly occupational in origin but are affected also by what is happening to them outside work (marriage problems, bereavement, money worries and so on). Also, like many other occupational health issues (e.g. respiratory sensitisation) there is a wide range of individual susceptibility to stress and its short, medium and long-term effects.

The government reports that nearly one in three of Europe's workers, more than 40million people, report that they are affected by stress at work.

RoSPA Alert: "Safety under Stress"

The following "alert" is designed to raise awareness by challenging health and safety professionals, managers and safety representatives to think carefully about stress as a safety as well as a health issue.

Fact

  • It is estimated that over 400,000 people are suffering from high levels of work-related stress. Work-related stress caused workers in Great Britain to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011/12. 2

Effects

  • High levels of stress (whether caused by work or arising from other life stressing events such as bereavement, divorce or money worries) can lead not only to ill health but can adversely affect concentration, information processing and the consistency of decision making.
  • Workers experiencing high levels of stress may be more liable to commit errors in their work (whether slips, mistakes or violations) which in turn can lead to accidents.

Signs

  • When monitoring for signs of stress, all health and safety professionals, managers and safety representatives should review accident and "near miss" trends in their organisations to see whether these are associated with such signs.
  • They should also consider the possible contribution of stress (both occupational and non-occupational) when investigating the causes of individual incidents.
  • They should seek to identify jobs, particularly those associated with high consequence risks, where high levels of human reliability are fundamental to safety.

Risk Assessments

  • In consultation with safety representatives, they should review risk assessments in such cases to determine whether additional measures are necessary to cope with any potential safety performance impairments due to stress (whether occupational or non-occupational) in origin.
  • Workers undertaking safety critical work should be a special focus for stress prevention and support.
  • Consideration of stress as a performance impairment factor should always be taken into account when designing safety critical technology and systems as well as specific jobs and key work procedures.

Training

  • Training programmes for managers and safety representatives on how to deal with stress should not only address the identification, assessment and management of occupational stress and stressors, but how to tackle the safety impact of non-occupational stress in key staff.

Skills

  • Line managers and safety representatives need to develop attitudes and skills which will enable them to recognise the signs of stress and deal sympathetically with those affected.

Support

  • Staff experiencing stress need re-assurance that any adjustments to their work for safety reasons will not lead to unfair discrimination.
  • Similarly, organisations need to have arrangements in place to counsel support, and rehabilitate staff who have suffered mental trauma as a result of accident involvement, whether as a casualty or a witness
  • Appropriate job adaptations to support stressed workers undertaking safety critical work should always be considered as an option before simply replacing them (even temporarily), recognising that their recovery may be assisted by remaining at work carrying out their normal duties.

The aim of this alert on stress and safety is to:

  • Remind all people at work about the relationship between stress (both occupational and non-occupational) and its potential impact on human reliability
  • Raise awareness of the relationship between stress and rising accident rates
  • Address stress prevention and coping strategies for those undertaking safety significant work/decision making
  • To enhance understanding of the impact of accidents on mental health and the need for effective rehabilitation.

Traditionally stress has been linked more to ill-health effects rather than safety concerns in the workplace. On the other hand, whether originating within the workplace or outside, it is clear that high levels of stress are likely to be associated with an increase in the frequency of errors (whether slips, mistakes or violations) and that these in turn can increase accident risks. Furthermore, accidents can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in those directly affected by them. However the link between stress, error frequency and accident liability is likely to be complex as individuals differ in their reactions and experience of different stressors.

RoSPA recognises that it is impossible to develop a set of rules on stress and safety which are likely to be both easily understandable and relevant to a wide variety of circumstances. The key challenge is to help stakeholders to achieve proportional and humane responses to safety issues associated with stress (for example, ensuring confidentiality and making job adjustments rather than simply replacing stressed employees whose recovery may in fact depend on remaining at work carrying out their normal duties). The following "alert" is designed to raise awareness by challenging health and safety professionals, managers and safety representatives to think carefully about stress as a safety as well as a health issue.

  1. In the UK as many as one in five people are suffering from high levels of work-related stress. Over half a million workers take time off work annually as a result of experiencing stress.
  2. High levels of stress (whether caused by work or arising from other life stressing events such as bereavement, divorce or money worries) can lead not only to ill health but can adversely affect concentration, information processing and the consistency of decision making.
  3. Workers experiencing high levels of stress may be more liable to commit errors in their work (whether slips, mistakes or violations) which in turn can lead to accidents.
  4. When monitoring for signs of stress, all health and safety professionals, managers and safety representatives should review accident and "near miss" trends in their organisations to see whether these are associated with such signs.
  5. They should also consider the possible contribution of stress (both occupational and non-occupational) when investigating the causes of individual incidents.
  6. They should seek to identify jobs, particularly those associated with high consequence risks, where high levels of human reliability are fundamental to safety.
  7. In consultation with safety representatives, they should review risk assessments in such cases to determine whether additional measures are necessary to cope with any potential safety performance impairments due to stress (whether occupational or non-occupational) in origin.
  8. Workers undertaking safety critical work should be a special focus for stress prevention and support.
  9. Consideration of stress as a performance impairment factor should always be taken into account when designing safety critical technology and systems as well as specific jobs and key work procedures.
  10. Appropriate job adaptations to support stressed workers undertaking safety critical work should always be considered as an option before simply replacing them (even temporarily), recognising that their recovery may be assisted by remaining at work carrying out their normal duties.
  11. Training programmes for managers and safety representatives on how to deal with stress should not only address the identification, assessment and management of occupational stress and stressors, but how to tackle the safety impact of non-occupational stress in key staff.
  12. Line managers and safety representatives need to develop attitudes and skills which will enable them to recognise the signs of stress and deal sympathetically with those affected.
  13. Staff experiencing stress need re-assurance that any adjustments to their work for safety reasons will not lead to unfair discrimination.
  14. Similarly, organisations need to have arrangements in place to counsel support, and rehabilitate staff who have suffered mental trauma as a result of accident involvement, whether as a casualty or a witness.

Resources

HSE

HSE Website

HSE publications

Health Risks at Work

International Stress Management Association

References

  1. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work European Risk Observatory Report OSH in figures: stress at work - facts and figures, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2009
  2. Stress and Psychological Disorders in Great Britain 2013, HSE

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