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Employers must tackle the root causes of stress

Employers must tackle the root causes of stress

Work-related stress is increasing and is one of the largest contributors to sickness absence in the civil service.



Two motions from the Scottish Government and British Library branches highlighted the devastating impact on workers, their colleagues and their organisations.

David Hunter (Scottish Government) said the civil service was doing too much with too few people. This was recognised by John Manzoni, the chief executive officer of the civil service, in November 2016 when he acknowledged that the civil service was already “doing 30% too much”.

The Health and Safety Executive has reported that levels of work-related stress are already significantly higher in the public sector than the industry average, said Hunter.

In 2015 and 2016, the Council of Scottish Government Unions conducted a survey of Scottish Government staff using HSE’s stress indicator tool.

Hunter described the results as “shocking” and showed that the Scottish Government fell short of the standards. Half of the staff felt that they were bullied at work.

The key areas of concern were: workload demands, management support and change management.

Staff absences due to stress reduce staff numbers worsen the situation for those who remain and generate additional absence management issues. The whole process is a “vicious and unsustainable cycle” said Hunter.

The pressure was creating friction between people at work and in some cases people were turning on each other. He urged delegates to look at expert advice and stand up to say “enough is enough”.

First-time delegate Graham Ford (British Library) said health and safety reps have been trying to engage management. Although the library accepts that there is a problem with stress, it has taken a piecemeal approach to dealing with it.

Steve Kay (HSE) said the government didn’t understand or care about the effect on people and that organisations needed to understand the root causes of stress.

The HSE’s standards were limited and he recommended other sources of guidance, including the CIPD guidance on line management behaviour and the NICE guidance on mental well-being at work, which both address the root causes.

Kay said the workplace culture was very important. Aggresive and uncaring managers were a big problem and they needed to act with care and compassion.

Kay described a long-term study of baboons in South Africa. Stress levels dropped after all the alpha males died of tuberculosis, leaving just beta males. “We need a strategy to rid ourselves of alpha males!” he said.

“Ask questions, hold managers to account and challenge those cultures,” he concluded.

Louise Green (EFRA) said employers were not tackling the root causes of stress. Health and safety reps in her branch were calling on the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs to carry out an organisational stress risk assessment.

David Olajide (Joint Forces Command) said action was needed now as long-term sickness absence was on the increase.

Leaderships were increasingly spineless in tackling the pressures they are under. He said top people have to challenge the status quo and a change of culture was needed.

John Cuthbert (HSE) said HSE’s management standards were a good start but “not the be all and end all”. He urged delegates to remind employers that tackling stress is not just about meeting the standards and “they need to do better”.

David Hunter (Scottish Government) concluded that: “Stress is being caused at work, it needs to be sorted at work.”

The Scottish Government motion instructed the sector executive to:

  • act to ensure that UK government and devolved administrations understand that constantly increasing workloads, at the same time as reducing staff numbers, leads to unsustainable pressures that are detrimental to the health of civil servants and remind ministers of their legal duty to act to protect their workforce from these pressures
  • continue to campaign for a properly resourced civil service across the UK
  • act to further encourage the UK government and devolved administrations to follow the advice of the HSE and take action to adopt a stress management strategy, using for example HSE’s management standards, within the civil service and the wider public sector
  • act to encourage development of a methodology to analyse the existing results of the Civil Service People Survey to identify how the civil service scores against HSE’s management standards. If necessary request that the people survey questions are modified to more accurately collect the data needed, and
  • act to encourage Prospect branches and representatives in the sector to do more to insist that their employers take health and safety responsibilities in relation to workplace stress seriously. This could include, for example, offering more support to Prospect health and safety representatives to work with their employers to demand effective action on stress management.

British Library branch’s motion instructed the sector executive to contact government departments and non-departmental public bodies and find out if they are following HSE’s guidance and report the findings.

The executive was also instructed to encourage departments and non-departmental public bodies that are not using the guidelines and risk assessments to do so.