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Risk Assessment for Work-Related Stress

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The experience of work stress is a challenge to the health and safety of workers and to the healthiness of their organizations. Employers should have a policy for the management of worker health that makes reference to work stress. They should enable that policy to be implemented by putting the appropriate arrangements in place. Such arrangements should address the issues of risk assessment, timely reaction, and rehabilitation. Organizational level strategies for managing existing work stress focus on combating the risks at source.

Work stress can be effectively managed by applying a risk management approach as is successfully done with other major health and safety problems. A risk management approach assesses the possible risks in the work environment that may cause particular existing hazards to cause harm to employees. A hazard is an event or situation that has the potential for causing harm. Harm refers to the physical or psychological deterioration of health. The causes of stress are hazards related to the design and management of work and working conditions, and such hazards can be managed and their effects controlled in the same way as other hazards.

Assessing the risks of work-related stress involves answering the following basic questions:

  • Is there a problem? Could work stress be affecting your workers’ health?
  • How can the stress problem be solved?
  • Is the whole system being monitored?

The aim of these questions is to identify work practices or circumstances that may cause significant imbalances of demand and resources. In the case of stress, it is the associations of these imbalances with signs of stress in individual employees and work groups that indicate their significance. Once identified and assessed, steps may be taken to reduce work stress at the group level.

It is not generally advisable to ask employees leading questions such as ‘are you stressed?’. Rather, you should explore the existing risks to your employees’ health and then decide on the best approach for your own work group. Your choice of action and your reasons for the chosen approach should be recorded.

Approaches to exploring existing risks:

  • You should ask employees directly about their work problems and whether or not they feel their health may be adversely affected by their work
  • You could ask employees to describe the three ‘best’ and the three ‘worst’ aspects of their job and to say whether they thought any of those aspects of workplace them under too much pressure
  • Employees could be asked a set of more detailed questions, based on the list given in the section on causes of stress (pp.6-7), asking them whether any of those possible problems apply to their own jobs
  • Questions that are tailor-made to speci_c working contexts are likely to be more useful in designing further actions than any ‘off-the-shelf’ package
  • Sickness absence, staff turnover, performance levels, accidents, and mistakes should beregularly monitored and checked for excesses, changes, and patterns

All these sources of information can alert you to potential problems where there is an identified imbalance of pressures and resources. They can alert you to ‘at risk’ work and work groups where an imbalance is associated with signs of stress.

The best way of finding out if your employees have problems at work and why is simply to ask them.

The person who is expert in the job is usually the person doing it. Very often managers may have quite different views from employees about what causes problems. Always ask employees for their views.

Essential steps in risk management

Risk management is essentially a problem-solving approach to health and safety problems and provides a vehicle for the continuous improvement of work and working conditions and thus the health of workers and the healthiness of their organizations

Risk management proceeds through a cycle of five actions:

[1] an analysis of the situation and an assessment of risk,

[2] the design of an action plan to reduce the risk of work stress

[3] the implementation of that action plan and

[4] its evaluation, and

[5] learning and further action based on the results of that evaluation

The basic steps in stress risk management are presented as follows:

  • Think about the different workgroups or workplaces that make up your organization. Ask yourself which are likely to be the most stressed or stressful.
  • What evidence have you got for this? (e.g. high absence rates, poor health records, high accident rates, poor morale, worker or trades union complaints, poor productivity etc.).
  • Investigate the way in which the work of these groups or workplaces is designed and managed, and examine their working conditions.
  • Identify, collect and discuss the evidence that is available to you. Work in a team with others who understand the work groups and workplaces. Consult the workers and trade unions possibly through group discussions.
  • Identify the main problems and their effects.
  • Discuss this information with the responsible managers and other relevant people, such as Occupational Health specialists, and with the trade unions.
  • Develop an action plan that is appropriate, reasonable and practical.
  • Discuss how this plan might be implemented and made to work. Inform the workers of the plan and how it will be implemented.
  • Before its implementation, determine how this plan might best be evaluated.
  • Implement and evaluate the action plan.
  • Discuss the results of the evaluation. What can be learned from the successes and failures of the action plan? What can be done now?
  • Revise action plan and implement a new one to target unaccounted risks.


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