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Adrian Wakeling: Let's update the HSE Management Stress Standards

Monday 28 September 2015

Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Analyst at Acas, discusses how the Health and Safety Executive's Management Standards for Stress should be reviewed and updated.

Adrian Wakeling

Adrian is a Senior Policy Analyst at Acas and is part of a team responsible for informing the future strategic direction of Acas and influencing the wider debate on the value of employment relations.

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In an Acas policy paper, pdf icon Is it time wellbeing grew up? [83kb], I wrote about a year ago, I said that "if 'wellbeing' is going to continue to be used as a catchall for all health issues, including mental health, isn't it time we reviewed the Health and Safety Executive's Management Standards for Stress and brought them more up-to-date with current thinking on mental health?"

I am delighted to see this sentiment echoed in the latest paper from the Work Foundation's Health at Work Policy Unit. The paper is a summation of the evidence and thinking the Unit has done in its first year. Part of its recommendations for 'Investing in a workforce fit for the future' include incentivising employers to make more health and wellbeing 'interventions'. But as I tried to argue in my paper, the health and wellbeing agenda is so vast and all-embracing that, in order to work, any interventions have to be carefully targeted. Some health issues, like some sectors, are inevitably harder to reach than others.

Apart from the considerable economic arguments for the benefits of wellbeing interventions (these are well set out in the report), there is the underlying belief that good health can be driven by good work.

Although there is some consensus around what constitutes 'good' work - ie work with a fair degree of discretion and autonomy - it is a concept that is clearly more applicable in some work environments than others. And as a recent report from Deloitte titled 'The robots are coming' indicates, the real challenge that many people will face in the future may not be around job autonomy at all, but job automation. Increasing automation is reported to be the second greatest strategic priority amongst shared service providers.

When it comes to job autonomy, there are sectors where the 'high road' rather than the low road is a realistic option - sectors that can take the time they need to build relationships based upon trust and good working practises.

Yet this is not true of every sector. When Acas was doing research for its report on UK productivity, we spoke to many of our advisors about their experience of what works and what doesn't work in businesses up and down the country. For example, in the care sector, some employees are concerned they are given very little discretion about the time they spend with their clients, and there can be a difficult balance to strike in aligning good work with good care.

The HSE standards were designed to be very practical interventions - telling managers how to intervene to stop the causes of stress and have proved very popular. But to go deeper and make the targeted interventions more meaningful, we need to be more sophisticated in our approach. As I suggested in an earlier blog, why not review the stress standards and make them broader and more in line with what we have all learnt about mental illness?

Read other blogs in our productivity series

1 Comment

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  • Posted by Karen Steadman  |  30 September 2015, 11:35AM

    In light of the recent NICE guidelines on workplace health, I think there is now an even stronger call to update the HSE stress management standards, and really make clear that there is a strong relationship between health and work, in terms of both causing poor health, and improving health.  Another recent study we were involved in for DWP found that 12 per cent of UK employees had a mental health condition, half of whom felt that work had worsened their health. There are many employers out there that recognise this and what to provide better support for thier employees (as well as many who don't!), but they do not know where to start.  This is especially true of smaller businesses who have such limited time and resource.  We need to ensure that the guidance and support produced for businesses by trusted voices such as H&SE on issue such as mental illness prevention and management are fit for purpose.