Employers who ignore the issue of workplace stress against the wishes of a clear majority of their workforce could face legal action under the terms of a new code published by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
The code will introduce a legal basis against which companies can be assessed for their efforts to reduce stress to manageable levels in six areas. It also sets a level for each area below which the company will be deemed to have failed the assessment.
- Demands: 85 per cent of employees must say that they can cope with the demands of their jobs.
- Control: 85 per cent must consider they have an adequate say over how they do their work.
- Support: 85 per cent must say they get adequate support from colleagues and superiors.
- Relationships: 65 per cent must say they are not subjected to unacceptable behaviour such as bullying.
- Role: 65 per cent must say they understand their role and responsibilities.
- Change: 65 per cent must say they are involved in organisational changes.
The six elements have been devised in light of a study of 10,000 UK civil servants that found staff could deal with high-pressure work environments provided they had a high degree of control over their working lives and good social support.
The major role that lack of control over work and lack of participation in decision making plays in stress-related illness has been borne out by a number of other studies in recent years.
The standards have been piloted tested in 24 firms, including major employers such as Sainsbury's and Lloyds TSB. They will be refined over coming months until the code is formally launched next year.
Although companies can be sued for causing unnecessary stress at work under the current Health and Safety at Work Act, the HSE has yet to bring a prosecution under the Act because a clear definition of workplace stress has not previously existed.
According to HSE research, about half a million people experience work-related stress at a level they believe was making them ill. Up to five million people in the UK feel “very” or “extremely” stressed by their work. The HSE estimates that 13.4 million days a year are lost due to stress, costing the UK between £3.7 billion and £3.8 billion annually.
Europe-wide, a report by market analysts Datamonitor has found that some 12 million people are opting for a cut in salary or working fewer hours to relieve the stress of the workplace, while 2 million have given up high-pressure jobs altogether.
Bill Callaghan, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, said: "We know there is considerable pressure in the modern workplace but there is a difference between the buzz people get from doing a busy and challenging job and an unreasonable pressure, which can harm health, lead to absence and put additional strain on their colleagues trying to cope in an even more pressured environment.
"Handing [companies] a tool to help them develop good practice makes sense and the earlier the better. I know this is not going to be easy but grasping this nettle can make for a successful business and a happier workforce."