Yesterday I attended the HSE stress summit in London for the launch of their new stress campaign.
The conference went well and the main thrust of the conference was on the importance of prevention, using the risk prevention and risk management approach that is contained in the HSE stress management standards. This is the approach that unions all support and the TUC and HSE have just produced advice for union representatives on how to use them.
However, what surprised me was the number of speakers (not HSE ones) who were talking about using resilience. Resilience is the idea that you can prevent people becoming stressed by making them more resilient. This is of course nonsense. If people are getting stressed you remove the causes of stress. This is the approach that is used for every other workplace hazard – after all we don’t try to change workers to make them more resilient to dangerous chemicals why on earth should we do it with stress.
The idea behind resilience is that it sees the worker as being the problem, so what you do is fix the worker, and that is the crux of the problem. Employers like resilience because it means they do not have to address the real problem, which is how they treat workers. Bosses can claim that if someone goes off sick with stress it was because they were not resilient enough. It reminds me of twenty years ago when employers (and lawyers) talked about people who suffered from stress as having an “eggshell personality”.
There is also no evidence to support the idea that you can make your workforce more “resilient” to stress – even if you wanted to. There has been a lot of research into the subject which seems to show that teaching people how to recognise and deal with the symptoms of stress can help their recovery and this is the principle behind one of the main treatments that is offered to those with stress, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is different from an employer trying to make their workforce less likely to suffer from stress so that you can keep on piling on the stress.
People who suffer from a stress-related illness do of course need support in getting better. It is also important to remember that around 70% of stress-related absence is not primarily caused by workplace stress but by other factors and employers can do a lot to help them get better. This includes access to counselling or treatments such as CBT. Unions have been at the forefront of trying to encourage employers to offer support. We also support a lot of the wellbeing initiatives that employers are introducing and have guidance on this. However, where I disagree with a lot of the consultants who are selling well-being or stress awareness training to employers is that these are not a substitute for prevention.
For too long, employers have been able to ignore workplace stress with impunity, knowing that the HSE will not take action against them, and instead they have focused on anything except preventing the causes of workplace stress. They are acting like the king’s men in Alice in Wonderland who are trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again rather than stopping him falling off the wall in the first place.
Well, it is time that approach stopped. The HSE stress summit is a great start but if it is going to really be effective, it needs to be followed up by strong simple regulations that make it clear what employers need to do and a campaign of enforcement against those employers who knowingly subject their workforce to harmful workplace stress.