Many people still get confused about pressure and stress, yet there's a great deal of difference between the two. We all experience pressure on a daily basis, and need it to motivate us and enable us to perform at our best. However, if we experience too much pressure without the opportunity to recover, we feel unable to cope and stress is the result.
HSE and HSENI define stress as, 'An adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them.' Given an excess of pressure, stress can therefore happen to anyone, and should not be seen as a weakness. Instead, an individual needs to be helped to deal with these pressures.
As reactions to stress will vary from one individual to another – and may also vary at different times of our lives – it's important that we learn to recognise stress and understand what to do to reduce it. Tackling personal stress is an individual's responsibility; however, employers have a responsibility to help reduce any stress which may arise in their employees as a result of their work.
Under UK law, employers have a legal duty of care to ensure their employees are not harmed by work-related stress. They also have a duty to assess the risk arising from hazards at work, including stress. To help organisations meet these duties, in November 2004 HSE introduced Management Standards and guidelines on work-related stress. This article outlines the Management Standards approach, based on information from discussions with managers and the analysis of effective case studies.
The Management Standards for work-related stress use a risk assessment approach based on the familiar HSE 'Five steps to risk assessment'. The guidance is based on a collective, proactive approach which research has shown has the most positive effect on worker health.
Note: Jobs are not expected to be risk assessed, because no job should itself be inherently stressful. It is the interaction of a person with their job, and their individual perceptions of this, that can result in stress. A job may be stressful for one person but not another, so the key is matching the individual to the job.
According to HSE-commissioned research, major causes of work-related stress can be categorised into six key areas or 'risk factors' – the rationale being that if these are not managed effectively in an organisation then staff are at risk of suffering from work-related stress. In Step 1 it is therefore important that all employees are familiar with and understand these risk factors.
Demands – such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.
Identify which factors are a problem in your organisation or department. To do this you could:
Use the information assimilated in Step 2 to determine how the organisation is performing in relation to each of the six risk factors. Identify stress hot spots and priority areas.
Communicate the results of Step 2 to all staff, and involve staff at all levels in finding solutions through team meetings and/or focus groups. Ask if you are doing enough, what control measures are already in place and what else needs to be done.
Work with staff to decide on improvement targets and actions. Actions will depend on the information gained in Steps 2 and 3 and will vary between different organisations. Develop action plans in consultation with staff and their representatives.
Look for improvements. Communicate successes throughout the business. Listen to staff and tackle strategies that are not working. Repeat the audit.
Although the risk assessment process takes a collective, proactive approach, individual differences and problems will exist. Managers therefore need to develop a rapport with staff through regular meetings and informal chats. They need to be familiar with where to go for help and what to do to help an individual if the need arises. Staff also need to be encouraged to raise concerns and need to be informed of where they can go for help.