How charity leaders can combat work-related stress

Friday, August 6, 2021

Stress is a prevalent issue in the third sector. According to a survey of 238 charities conducted by the union Unite, 80% of charity workers reported experiencing workplace stress, and almost half (42%) said their job wasn’t good for their mental health. As an employer, it’s important to understand what health and safety law requires in regard to the management of work-related stress. In this blog, James Tamm from Ellis Whittam explores what’s meant by ‘work-related stress’, possible causes, and how risk assessments can help to identify and control any ‘stressors’ in workplaces and individuals. 

What do we mean by work-related stress?

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the term work-related stress refers to “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them”. Pressure can of course be a motivator; however, when it becomes excessive, it can develop into stress and can make people ill.

Workplace accidents lead to time off work and financial loss. It’s the same with stress. A Labour Force Survey found that there were 828,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20, resulting in 17.9 million working days lost. These figures are significantly higher than previous years and COVID-19 will likely catalyse a further spike in cases.

More recently, an Acas report revealed that disputes at work are a major cause of work-related stress. 56% of those who experienced work-related conflict reported stress, anxiety and/or depression, and the vast majority of these workers remained at work. This ‘presenteeism’ has a profoundly negative impact on productivity –  estimated to cost organisations between £590 million and £2.3 billion annually. That’s before you consider other expensive repercussions, including lengthy absences and possible resignations.

Reasons to manage stress     

Employers have a moral duty to prevent suffering and maintain quality of life. Stress affects the brain’s performance, including functions such as memory, concentration and learning. This can have a significant impact on a person’s life inside and outside of work and may even lead to other health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The impact on individuals will naturally impact your organisation – the second reason to manage work-related stress is therefore financial. Stress reduces productivity, increases management pressure and can make workers ill for long periods; on average, one case leads to 30 days off work. If stress leads to increased absences, this workload will have to be absorbed elsewhere, which puts pressure on other staff. Agency workers may be needed to provide support, incurring further expense.

Last but not least, there’s the legal reason: to avoid prosecution, enforcement notices and compensation claims. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 requires employers to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of employees, so far as is “reasonably practicable”. This means balancing the cost of taking protective measures against the risk of not doing so. Similarly, the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 additionally require employers to make a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the health and safety risks that employees are exposed to at work. Like any workplace hazard, stress must be managed.

Luckily, there is plenty of guidance available on stress, including the HSE’s Management Standards.

HSE Management Standards

The Management Standards approach aims to help organisations reduce the levels of work-related stress by focusing on six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates.

These are:

  • Demands – whether issues such as workload, work patterns and working environment put people’s health at risk.
  • Control – how much say someone has in the way they work.
  • Support – the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by an organisation, line managers and colleagues.
  • Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role – ensuring workers understand their role and that there are no conflicting roles.
  • Change – how organisational change is managed and communicated.

The standards provide a useful benchmark for organisations to review how well they are currently controlling work-related stress.

‘Change’ is particularly pertinent right now. All workplaces have undergone numerous changes in the past 18 months. How has your organisation managed this upheaval? It’s vital that change is coordinated and communicated effectively, otherwise workers may become stressed as they don’t know what type of environment they are coming into.

Organisational change may also impact the other five areas. For example, workers may now be in new roles or relationships may have become strained. As such, stress is highly likely, and there has never been a more opportune time for organisations to implement the Management Standards approach.

Risk assessment

As stated, the law requires employers to manage stress. This is done through a five-step risk assessment:

  1. Identify risk factors.
  2. Determine who can be harmed and how.
  3. Evaluate risks.
  4. Record findings.
  5. Monitor and review.

Risk assessment is a valuable tool in managing workplace risks and stress is no different. A specific stress risk assessment will help you to identify and control stressors within your workplace and in individuals:

  • Talk to employees, employee representatives and managers.
  • Review sickness absence and turnover records.
  • Consider who could be harmed.
  • Think about controls in place and what more might be needed.
  • Review findings with managers and agree next steps.
  • Implement changes and determine timescales for review.

The HSE provides good examples which can be used alongside with the Management Standards to determine how you’re currently managing stress and strengthen your control measures.

Finally, remember that people are unique. As such, your approach to stress needs to be unique as well – unique to your organisation, its workers and safety culture.

Find out more about how Ellis Whittam supports ACEVO members