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       Hazards, number 148, 2019
BLOWN AWAY | Act now stop the work stress tsunami

It was a stunning turnaround. In July 2019, Hazards accused the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of having an ‘enforcement anomaly’ and a ‘prevention blindspot’ on workplace harassment (Hazards 146). Just three months later, in what the TUC described as a ‘significant advance’, the government health and safety regulator quietly caved, and revised its stress investigation policy.

The TUC has issued updated guidance for trade union safety reps on work-related stress. The guide takes into account HSE conceding to union demands that it should also investigate cases of harassment and bullying where management’s wider organisational failings are a contributory factor. more

The new HSE guidance now says the safety regulator may act where an employer fails to address workplace harassment risks.  The new official guidance on ‘reporting a concern’ about work-related stress repeats the watchdog’s long-held line that: “HSE does not seek to apply the Health and Safety at Work Act where there is other more specific legislation or a more appropriate regulator,” and adds: “Cases of bullying and harassment would more commonly be dealt with as issues of discipline eg. breaches of policies on expected behaviours, discrimination, victimisation or equality.”

But it now says HSE may instigate a safety investigation into bullying or harassment “if there is evidence of a wider organisational failing.”  It adds HSE stress investigations are appropriate where there is “evidence that a number of staff are currently experiencing work-related stress or stress-related ill-health.”

TUC’s Laurie Heselden commented: “The TUC and affiliated unions have been pressing the HSE to expand its criteria for investigating complaints about work-related stress, so we are pleased to have won the argument, and we welcome this positive step by the HSE.”

One problem. When it comes to work-related stress, we’ve never had it so bad.

It just got worse

Winning the policy change was a good first step, but there are ongoing concerns about HSE’s failure to actually address any forms of work-related stress.  Despite HSE’s stress management standards having been in place for over 15 years, enforcement action by HSE is almost unheard of and the number of workers affected by work-related stress, anxiety or depression is at an all-time high.

The official toll has increased from the previous record of 595,000 affected workers in 2017/18 to 602,000 in 2018/19, a prevalence of 1,800 cases per 100,000. Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain 2019, published by HSE on 20 October 2019, revealed work days lost to the conditions dropped sharply, from 15.4 million days lost to 12.8 million, suggesting millions of working wounded can’t afford to - or dare not - take time off work.

BAD JOB  There is evidence confirming the quality of the jobs we do has taken a sharp turn for the worse, as job insecurity rises and pay stagnates.

A November 2019 report from LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) found an explosion in the numbers working in poor quality jobs is behind the UK’s record high employment. Co-author Rui Costa, a CEP research economist, said: “The labour market may seem to be at peak fitness, as employment rates continue at record highs – but it is not in as good shape as some assert. Employment growth has been strong, but there are serious concerns about the changing nature of work and low (sometimes very low) wages.”

A September 2019 report from the TUC noted there are 3.7 million people in insecure work, nearly two million (1.85m) self-employed people earning less than the minimum wage and workers are facing the longest pay squeeze for 200 years. The TUC report said: “Staff are much less likely to express job-related anxiety in unionised workplaces than comparable non-unionised workplaces; the difference is particularly striking for women with caring responsibilities.”

Excessive workloads, low pay and a lack of control over the job are among factors threating to engulf workers in a ‘tsunami’ of work-related stress, the TUC said.
TUC’s Laurie Heselden said one neglected factor contributing to the increase in stress has been poor pay and high job insecurity, noting while “it’s clear that by far the major cause of harmful work-related stress and ill-health is excessive workloads,” low pay and a sharp increase in insecure work also help explain why “it’s no surprise that a tsunami in work-related stress has hit working people over the last decade.”

Don’t just talk, organise

An isolated, insecure, under-paid and under-the-cosh workforce is stressed by design. It’s a challenge for both unions and the HSE.

Responding to harmful work-related stress, TUC, updated November 2019.

According to TUC’s Heselden: “The HSE's guidance to employers and managers is good in principle, but it is important to make it effective in practice.  It is right that the HSE should focus on potential cases of unhealthy work-related stress that are structural, and that it should expect all usual channels of remedy to have been explored and exhausted, including representations by trade union health and safety reps. But the potential intervention by the HSE is a significant advance.”

He added: “In parallel, unions and other stakeholders must continue to campaign for a substantial increase in the funding for HSE activities, especially proactive inspections. It is good to win an expanded intent, remit and role for the HSE, but what we want and need, is expanded impact.”

He indicated unions, by negotiating stress-busting solutions and better pay in the workplace, can deliver better work whether or not HSE steps up. “Overall, unionised workplaces are more productive, safer and healthier – and workers are better paid on average too,” he said.  “Get smart, defend yourself, protect yourself, respect yourself, and join a union… And if you are in a union already, organise in the workplace to win great jobs for everyone.”



HSE ‘reporting a concern’ update, advice on How to report a work related stress concern, Tackling stress workbook, stress management standards and other HSE workplace stress resources.

Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain 2019, HSE, 2019.

TUC guide to responding to harmful work-related stress; and Tackling workplace stress using the HSE Stress Management Standards, TUC and HSE guidance for health and safety representatives.

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Blown away

Stress and harassment. The top workplace health and safety problem. The least likely to result in enforcement action. This can't go on.

It just got worse
Don’t just talk, organise
Stress tsunami

TUC stress webpages.
HSE stress webpages.
Hazards webpages
Low pay
Insecure work