Stress is to the modern office worker what emphysema is to a coal miner. Hardly a day goes by without a newspaper story on the latest tribunal case to arise from stress. The Association of Local Authority Risk Managers (ALARM) went as far as highlighting stress as the key concern for the 21st century. So far this year we have seen a number of stress claims against local authorities achieving out-of-court settlements of £150,000 and more. These have naturally put the issue high on the Risk Manager's agenda. But the key is prevention rather than cure.

What is stress?
A degree of pressure can be a positive motivator. Problems arise when pressure becomes so intense and sustained that it causes psychological harm.

The symptoms we associate with stress (migraine, ulcers, heart disease etc.) are a manifestation and in the most severe forms a debilitating result of unremitting external pressures undermining the individual's capacity to cope. Stress may arise from a number of sources including:

  • The nature of the work
  • Increasing work volumes
  • Management pressures/bullying
  • Non-work related factors

    Scale and nature of the problem
    Successful stress claims from the landmark Walker v Northumberland County Council (1996) onwards, including the recent cases, all demonstrate common features.

    In each case the ultimate claim results from a situation where the individual has identified a problem and raised it with management. In most cases there has also been documented sickness absence. On each occasion, despite evidence that a problem is building up, the issues have not been fully addressed resulting in further deterioration in the situation to the point where the individual has been forced to leave his or her job through ill health.

    As many of the victims are by this point unable to return to paid work this has cost implications for local government pensions in addition to the resultant employers' liability claim. The potential cost to employers in direct terms is significant but the overall costs in terms of absence, disruption to services, increased pressure on other staff etc can only be estimated.

    Evidence of the growing problem was provided when a recent TUC survey indicated a 70% increase in work related stress cases being handled by unions between 1997 and 1998 when 15 new cases were coming through each week. Recent settlements will undoubtedly provide further impetus to these growing numbers.

    What can be done?
    Health & Safety Executive estimates suggest that 60% of workplace absence is caused by stress. Often the reasons given for sickness will indicate a wide range of physical symptoms triggered by stress which if taken at face value will mask the underlying cause. Good absence monitoring can be a key tool in overcoming this by identifying recurrent periods of sickness for further investigation. This can be effective in minimising exposure to employers' liability claims since identification of stress cases at an early stage, perhaps even before the individual is prepared to admit the real problem, enables the employer to take action to alleviate the situation.

    Any programme aiming to reduce employee stress must take a comprehensive view not only of the symptomatic occurrence of stress and measures needed to remedy it but of management practice across the organisation and particularly inconsistencies in such practice which may lead to pockets of stress.

    In this context a risk audit of human resources management practice can help to identify problem areas so that root causes can be addressed.

    A common employer reaction to the recognition of a stress problem is to initiate a stress audit. While such an audit may serve to highlight existing or potential problem areas, it highlights the results rather than the causes of the problem and should only be seen as one possible element of a much wider strategy. Indeed in isolation a stress audit may raise employee expectations of action which if not achieved may actually work against the employer.

    When absence monitoring is in place to establish the problems facing the organisation this should be backed up by an absence management system involving early contact with each absent employee to establish the problem and the likely length of absence. A number of larger private sector employers have established such systems. These have the flexibility to extend to rehabilitation support where appropriate to facilitate the early and supported return to work of the employee.

    The way forward
    In many areas of local government the work environment has changed significantly over recent years. Someone who joined the organisation 20 years ago in a team environment with a job role they loved may now work alone in a totally changed role with a dramatically increased workload. Isolation in itself may be stressful for someone who is essentially a team player. The threshold at which stress becomes intolerable will vary from person to person. It is therefore vital that when job roles are changed the risk assessment of the new role considers the impacts on the individual and what retraining and ongoing support will be required for them to succeed in the new role. Risk assessments should be regularly reviewed as the role develops.

    The organisation that adopts a structured risk management approach will lay sound foundations to protect the well being of its major asset, its employees.

  • Sheila Boyce is a manager with Aon Risk Services Public Sector Consulting Group. For more information call her on 0118 929 5015; Fax 0118 929 5107;

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