Legal Article - Health & Safety

Health and Safety: Stress in the Workplace

The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as "people's natural reaction to excessive pressure", which can lead to mental and physical ill health (e.g. depression, nervous breakdown, heart disease).

The employer has a duty to prevent this as far as is reasonably practical. As for other health and safety problems the employer must undertake a risk assessment by

  • Looking for pressures at work which could cause high and long-lasting levels of stress
  • Deciding who might be harmed by these
  • Deciding whether enough is being done to prevent that harm
  • Take all reasonable steps to eliminate or reduce those pressures

Symptoms of stress include an increase in absenteeism (especially frequent short spells of sickness), lateness, staff turnover, disciplinary problems, reduction in output, reduction in quality of product or service, deteriorating relationships with colleagues, changes in personality (irritability, indecisiveness), self-neglect, obsessional behaviour, smoking or drinking more, taking drugs and more complaints about ill health e.g. headaches.

Problems at work that can lead to stress include: boring or repetitive work, too little to do, too much to do or too little time to do it in, insufficient training, confusion about how everyone fits in, too much responsibility, poor relationships with colleagues, bullying (including sexual and racial harassment as well as frequently belittling someone or constant criticism), inflexible or unrealistic work schedules, physical danger (e.g. hazardous chemicals, risk of violence), poor physical working conditions (e.g. noise, vibration), lack of control over work activities especially if not given enough responsibility, lack of communication and consultation, lack of support, negative culture (e.g. a culture of blame when things go wrong, denial of potential problems), as well as non-work events (e.g. death, divorce, family illnesses).

Some ways of tackling these problems are:

  • Change the way jobs are done by moving people between jobs, giving individuals more responsibility, increasing the scope of the job, increasing the variety of tasks, giving a group of workers greater responsibility for effective performance of the group

  • Give warning of urgent or important jobs, prioritise tasks, cut out unnecessary work

  • Make sure individuals are matched to jobs, provide training for those who need it, increase the scope of jobs for those who are over-trained

  • Make sure everyone has clearly defined objectives and responsibilities linked to business objectives, and training on how everyone fits in

  • Provide training and support for those with responsibility of caring for others

  • Set up effective systems to prevent bullying and harassment and policies to make it clear how such occurrences will be dealt with.

  • See if there is scope for flexible work schedules (e.g. flexible working hours, working from home)

  • Provide opportunities for staff to contribute ideas, especially in planning and organising their own jobs

  • Introduce clear business objectives, good communication, and employee involvement

  • Provide as much support as possible for employees to help them deal with their personal problems
  • Training managers in interpersonal skills and stress management.

The main difficulty is that the stress threshold varies from person to person and for some people stress is helpful and they give their best when under pressure. The introduction of general practices described above needs to be buttressed by concern for people as individuals.

More details of all the above legal requirements and how they impact on the motor retail industry can be found in three excellent publications produced by the Health and Safety Executive.

The latter is a Government Agency responsible for giving advice and guidance on health and safety matters, drafting new legislation and enforcing the law. The three publications are:

  • Health and Safety in Motor Vehicle Repair HS (G) 67 1992 HSE Books

  • Health and Safety in Tyre and Exhaust Fitting Premises HS (G) 62 1991 HSE Books

  • 5 Steps to Risk Assessment: Case Studies HS (G) 183 1998 HSE Books

Published: 21 Mar 2011

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