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Tackling stress: the 21st Century industrial disease

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Stress has replaced industrial injuries as the top reason for workers being off long-term sick.

Mental disorders now make up 40 per cent of incapacity benefit claims, compared to just 16 per cent in 1988. Women are increasingly affected, with claims rising from 27 per cent of the total in 1988 to 41 per cent today.

With the publication of its Welfare Reform Bill the Government has proposed tackling the problem by replacing incapacity benefit with an employment and support allowance.

John Hutton, secretary of state for work and pensions, said on BBC Breakfast: “I think if there is one failing in our current system, it really hasn’t provided enough help and support for people on incapacity benefit.”

The Government estimates the reforms will save £7 billion of the £12bn cost of incapacity benefit but insists it is not carrying out a “penny pinching exercise”.

All claimants would be assessed and those classed as able to work would be given extra help to find jobs. But those refusing to take part would risk losing part of their benefits. The most seriously disabled would be exempt.

But mental health charities and organisations are concerned that insisting on a return to work could jeopardise fragile recoveries.

Employers may also be concerned about their own liability – if an employer fails to act on an employee’s complaints of stress then it is possible that the employee would be able to make a claim through the tribunal system.

Canadian research has indicated that triggers for stress at work include high job demands, tight deadlines and poor support in the workplace. As well as mental problems, stress can also cause physical conditions such as high blood pressure which in turn can lead to strokes and heart attacks.

The study suggested that employers might be able to help by giving workers more support and control over deadlines and tasks.

Meanwhile, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is also targeting stress in the workplace – it estimates that each outbreak leads to an average of 30.9 days lost. The total of working days lost due to stress, depression and anxiety in 2004/5 was 12.8 million.

Employers have duties to manage workplace stress under both the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, which require a risk assessment, and the Health and Safety at Work Act, which require measures to be taken to control any risks.

The HSE has produced a five-step approach to assessing and tackling stress in your organisation:

  • 1 Identify the hazards

  • 2 Decide who might be harmed and how

  • 3 Evaluate the risk and take action

  • 4 Record your findings

  • 5 Monitor and review.

It says the key to a good stress policy is to understand that it is a workplace issue and not an individual matter.

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