Are the Health and Safety Executive’s Stress Management Standards Adequate?
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Employers have a legal responsibility to manage mental health at work. Part of an employer’s approach should include undertaking and acting upon mental health risk assessments. To help employers understand what mental health risks to assess, the UK’s health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has set out its stress management standards. But are these standards helping or hindering employers and are they adequate?
Undoubtedly the HSE is acting with the best of intentions. Workplace mental health management is a relatively new discipline. Providing guidance to employers may, therefore, be helpful. The guidance the HSE provides includes what it calls its stress management standards. These standards relate to:
Demands - this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
Control - how much say the person has in the way they do their work
Support - this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
Relationships - this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
Role - whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
Change - how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation
(More details can be found at: https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards/)
But how helpful are these standards? And are they adequate?
Firstly, the HSE’s stress management standards only apply to stress. Many other mental health conditions exist but are not addressed through the HSE’s standards. Genetic conditions such as ADHD and chronic conditions such as depression are obvious examples. It is clear that managing mental health according to the HSE’s stress management standards alone is not adequate. Employers must consider additional mental health conditions, as well as others factors that might cause or exacerbate mental ill-health.
Secondly, as far as stress is concerned, there are several other stressors which can adversely impact employee mental health but which the HSE does not refer to. Job security is an obvious contemporary example. The Covid-19 pandemic will see millions of people lose their jobs, with many waiting months to see if they are to be consigned to the unemployment line. Many people will suffer stress caused by worrying about their job and earnings security. Another obvious example relates to roles which may cause people to fear for their life or fear harm or injury. Soldiers in combat and police officers facing riotous crowds may face such fears, as might people who work at height or people working near high-speed vehicles such as those involved in rail and highway maintenance. It is evident the HSE’s stress management standards are far too limited for many employers and should not be an employer’s only point of reference when determining which mental health risks to assess.
Some organisational leaders might think that so long as they follow the HSE’s guidance, they cannot be found culpable. Here, the HSE's guidance may be having a detrimental effect as it may be misleading employers; a situation which surely the HSE itself, as well as others, cannot wish to continue.
As is evident, the HSE must change its approach. It must either list all possible mental ill-health causes and contributory factors, or it must scrap any such list and leave employers to determine the mental health risks that affect their employees and other people affected by their activities. At the very least, the HSE must be more clear about the limitations of its stress management standards.
Understandably, many employers feel the HSE’s guidance, along with related laws and the guidance of others, is ambiguous, confusing and, in places, contradictory. Employers cannot be expected to comply with workplace mental health laws if they cannot clarify how to do so.
Until governments provide clarity on the law and until regulators, such as the HSE, provide clarity on compliance, employees will pay the price. Employees will continue to be at risk as employers may not understand how best to manage employee mental health and regulators are not adequately protecting it.