Tension Seekers: The Law Requires Employers to Do What Is Reasonable When It Comes to Managing Stress at Work. This Includes Regular Risk Assessments, Employee Consultation and the Implementation of Agreed Action Plans. Ross Maynard Explains the Legal Obligations and How Best to Meet Them

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When the Health and Safety at Work Act came into force back in 1974 the UK economy was dominated by heavy industry, so it's little wonder that this law is aimed primarily at manual workers and focuses entirely on the physical risks to health and safety. Three decades on, few jobs are as physically dangerous as they were then, so now the act often has to be interpreted to cover the psychological effects of work--ie, stress.

Here, its provisions take on a whole new meaning, particularly when it comes to the employer's key duties to maintain safe systems of work; provide information, training and supervision to ensure health and safety; maintain a working environment that is without risk to health; and provide adequate arrangements for its employees' welfare.

But the legislative focus on the risks of work-related stress has increased with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. These require employers to:

* assess health risks from hazards of work, including the risk of stress-related illnesses (regulation 3);

* apply the principles of prevention for health and safety (regulation 4);

* ensure that employees are able to do the work required of them, and give them appropriate training (regulation 13). This legislation therefore requires employers to conduct regular assessments that cover the risk that employees may develop stress-related illnesses as a result of their work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified six risk factors for work-related stress that these assessments should cover:

* job demands;

* control over work;

* support structures;

* working relationships;

* role clarity;

* involvement in change.

The HSE is currently working on indicator-based management standards for these factors. Due for final publication early this year, the standards are available on its website in draft form (www.hse.gov.uk/stress/stresspilot/ standards.htm).

Each person's response to a stressful situation is highly individual. There is no objective measure of how stressful a given scenario may be, and problems in someone's personal life may also affect their response to events at work. This makes stress hard to manage in the workplace, since there are no objective performance indicators we can set. But the HSE's standards do provide a good framework, and a risk assessment for stress should be the starting point for further work.

The HSE's recommended approach to assessment, for both physical and psychological risks, comprises the following five steps:

* Identify the hazards.

*Decide who might be harmed and how.

* Evaluate the risk by identifying what action you are already taking; determining whether or not it is enough; and deciding what further action is required.

* Record the assessment's significant findings.

* Review the assessment at suitable intervals.

Identifying and tackling stress effectively requires openness, honesty and trust, so a partnership approach to assessing the risks is advisable. The assessment may become the responsibility of the health and safety committee, or a separate working party may be convened. Either way, it should involve union or employee representatives as well as managers.

Depending on the size and complexity of the organisation, a combination of methods may be used to identify the hazards against the HSE's six risk factors. These could include information collected from performance appraisals; absence management procedures (eg, return-to-work interviews); focus groups or improvement teams; and discussions with employee representatives, safety managers and others. Performance data, including sickness absence levels, productivity figures, wastage rates and quality audit results, could also be analysed.

It's important to review, in conjunction with your staff or union partners on the working party, the organisation's structure and any information already collected to identify which groups of employees, teams or units might be exposed to the six factors. …