HSE stresses the standard

Stress management standards and an accompanying toolkit were launched by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Jane Kennedy, minister for work, last week

The standards, which are voluntary, enable employers to set their own goals to manage stress, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than meeting an HSE-set target.

Firms will be required to carry out a risk assessment covering six areas of work that can cause stress: workload, control, support, relationships, role and change management. An online toolkit will automatically benchmark employers against the top 20 per cent of companies in the country.

Ben Willmott, CIPD adviser, employee relations, said the HSE had been pragmatic in choosing a flexible model. "One concern of CIPD members was that the HSE would take a 'one size fits all' approach. Most will be pleased with this because of the flexibility it affords," he said.

Liz Redway, HR manager at Borders UK, welcomed the standards but warned they could be ignored by some employers: "The standards will help responsible employers to tackle stress in a more structured way. But, as they are voluntary, they will do nothing for organisations who ignore the issue."

But Willmott said the HSE could take enforcement action against firms that failed to act, as stress was covered by existing legislation.

"The standards may be voluntary but they are a benchmark of good practice, so employers either have to follow them or implement their own," he said. "Any enforcement action would be issued not for breaching the standards, but for breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974."

Kennedy said a voluntary route was preferable to legislation because of the complex nature of stress, but acknowledged that enforcement was necessary.

"Enforcement is an important motivator for some employers. But stress is not necessarily work-related, so it's complicated to legislate for it at work because of all the other factors," she said.

She added that employers already had a legal duty to ensure, as far as possible, the mental health of employees.

According to HSE and Office of National Statistics figures, 13.4 million days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2001/2. New figures are due out this month.