Employers who ignore stress face legal action

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The Government is to crack down on stress at work with a tough new code, which for the first time will put employers at risk of legal action if they ignore the issue. The code, published today by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), sets six standards aimed at easing the pressure and improving the quality of life in the office and on the shopfloor. They include reducing job demands, increasing support and giving staff more control over their work.

The code will introduce a legal basis against which companies can be assessed for their efforts to reduce stress to manageable levels. If fewer than 65 to 85 per cent of staff agree that each standard has been met, the company will fail the assessment.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, companies canbe sued for causing unnecessary stress at work. But cases are difficult to prove and no prosecutions have been brought by the HSE. "The management standards will be what we expect companies to do to manage the stress in their workplace," an HSE spokeswoman said. "They will be equivalent to the Highway Code. It will make it easier for employees to bring actions and our inspectors will be able to go in and see if companies are up to the standards."

More than 13 million work days a year are lost because of stress, which affects one in five of all employees at a cost of up to £3.8bn, the HSE says.

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."

Companies are being invited to implement the standards, tested in 24 firms, from today. The standards will be fine-tuned until the code is formally launched next year.

The code is based on evidence from the Whitehall II study of 10,000 civil servants who have been followed since 1985. The study, by Professor Sir Michael Marmot and colleagues of University College London, found staff could cope with high-pressure work environments, without damage to their health, provided they had a high degree of control over their working lives and good social support.

In pilot studies of the code, to uncover hidden problems companies including Sainsbury's and Lloyds TSB have focused on areas where sickness absence is highest, turnover of staff is rising or productivity is falling. Staff have been asked to fill in questionnaires to rate the company against the six standards.

Claire Forty, the occupational health manager at the energy company Innogy, said 700 of more than 2,000 staff had been surveyed and the pilot test had revealed some groups were concerned at excessive demands and others about lack of control. "We have a lot of people who work a long way from where they live so flexible working, including working at home, is a big issue."

Companies had to acknowledge that the "whole person" came to work and pressures at home could affect their performance at work, Ms Forty said. "If I say to my boss I have got to come in late this week because of childcare problems I am confident it would be accepted. Equally, if he says to me there is a big job on and I have to come in at 7.30am each day that would be no problem.

"The benefits of meeting the standards, apart from complying with the law, are reducing turnover and sickness absence and increasing productivity as well as making it a great place to work. We haven't had a claim for stress against us but it would be foolish for any employer to say they would never get one."

Elizabeth Gyngell, head of HSE's better-working environment division, said: "I am delighted that such a wide range of companies ... are working with us to develop standards and being so frank in helping tackle the challenges."

THE STRESS TESTS

Firms must meet these six guidelines to avoid stress:

* Demands - 85 per cent of employees say they can cope with the demands of the job.

* Control - 85 per cent consider they have an adequate say over how they do their work.

* Support - 85 per cent say they get adequate support from colleagues and superiors.

* Relationships - 65 per cent say they are not subjected to unacceptable behaviour such as bullying.

* Role - 65 per cent say they understand their role and responsibilities.

* Change - 65 per cent say they are involved in organisational changes.

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