HSE Publishes New Research on Occupational Stress

Management Services, July 2000 | Go to article overview

HSE Publishes New Research on Occupational Stress


An estimated 5 million workers suffer from high levels of stress at work says a research report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) at the end of May. It also, together with another new report provides substantial evidence of the effects of work on people's mental and physical health.

Elizabeth Gyngell a senior policy manager in HSE's Health Directorate said: "This research confirms what a serious problem occupational stress is for Britain. We already knew from smaller studies that stress was probably our second biggest occupational health problem, after back pain, but this research now puts that beyond doubt. What is more, we can now be sure that how employers design jobs affects the mental and physical health of their employees. It also affects whether employees take sick leave. The work that has gone into these reports will assist us in our work of protecting the health and competitiveness of Britain's workforce."

The first study, The Scale of Occupational Stress: the Bristol Stress and Health at Work Study was carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol. It was based on the responses of about 8,000 people in the Bristol area who replied to two postal questionnaires sent a year apart. The key findings of the 3 year project were:

About one in five workers reported feeling either very or extremely stressed by their work. The team estimate that this equates to about 5 million workers in the UK.

There was an association between reporting being very stressed and a range of job design factors, such as having too much work to do or not being supported by managers.

There was an association between reporting being very stressed and a range of health outcomes, such as poor mental health and back pain; and health-related behaviours such as drinking alcohol and smoking.

Professor Andy Smith, who headed the research (and is now the Director of the Centre for Occupational Health Psychology, School of Psychology, Cardiff University), said: "Our results confirm that stress at work is a major problem. Estimates of the numbers of stressed workers will clearly depend on how stress is defined. We have used a conservative cut-off point based on a rating of very or extremely stressed. If one includes those reporting moderate levels of stress then the scale of the problem is even greater.

Our categorisation shows associations between ratings of stress and adverse working conditions. Similarly, occupational stress was associated with ill-health. In addition, we have demonstrated that these associations between stress and job characteristics and health do not reflect stress outside of work."

The second study, Work related factors and ill health: the Whitehall II Study, was carried out by researchers at University College London using information from the world-renowned Whitehall 11 study of the health of civil servants. However, the results are applicable to a much wider group of workers.

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