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Pressure point

A civil engineer's complaint is forcing the Environment Agency to beef up its policy for dealing with stressed employees. Damian Arnold reports.

The Environment Agency is stressed out. It has until September to produce a new policy for its 10,000 strong workforce after it was found to have broken health and safety legislation by failing to assess properly the risks to its workers from stress.

The Agency was forced to rethink its existing stress policy by environmental health officer for Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council, Andrew Goldsmith. Last September, Goldsmith found the Agency to have breached the 1992 Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations over its dealing with stress cases.

Goldsmith had conducted a two year investigation into the Agency's treatment of stress following a complaint from local civil engineer and Agency employee Michael Ryan. Ryan had claimed that bullying from his line manager had forced him to stop working.

It was not proved that Ryan had been bullied, but his complaint had far reaching consequences. Goldsmith found that the Agency had not 'planned, organised, controlled, monitored and reviewed measures to prevent stress and had not provided its employees with enough information about the risks to their health and safety'.

In a landmark ruling he warned the Agency that it had 'not undertaken an assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees to which they are exposed while at work in relation to psychosocial health from workplace stress'.

The Agency is framing a new policy statement on stress, which has the strong backing of new board member Alan Dalton.

'There is no doubt that stress is a massive issue at the Agency.

We need a totally different approach. I think there is definitely a need to change the management culture right from the top and offer more training for our managers because there is too much victimisation.'

Environment Agency national health and safety manager Tony Harnsworth, who will take the new policy statement to the Agency's board in October, says there are few examples to follow. He says: 'There is little best practice guidance for writing up a policy statement for dealing with stress. The Health & Safety Executive has done some work and there have been some independent studies, but there is little to go on from other big organisations.

'For example, it is sometimes extremely difficult to tell whether stress is caused at work or at home, ' he says.

The Health & Safety Commission acknowledges the difficulty of measuring a psycho-social problem to which people can react in very different ways. It is now developing a set of 'management standards' to help companies deal with employee stress.

Following a recent public consultation exercise, in which 98% of respondents said that more should be done to deal with the issue of stress, the HSC agreed to work up these standards and they are expected to be published this autumn. A generic set of performance indicators is then expected to lead to a new code of practice which would allow HSE inspectors to monitor how companies deal with stress.

The Environment Agency has liaised closely with the HSE as it puts its plan into action.

Stress-related sickness absences are being recorded for the first time. A series of focus groups made up of a cross-section of staff is also exploring the issue of stress at work and Harmsworth says that once the main causes of stress have been identified, a programme of training will follow.

Harmsworth adds that the Agency is building on strong groundwork already put in. He points to a booklet Stress at work issued to all Environment Agency staff 18 months ago, giving details of 'simple steps to coping with stress'. It includes a checklist for line managers to follow to minimise stress in the office and details of a confidential counselling service. 'We get anonymous statistics and comments fed back from the counselling service which we monitor on a quarterly basis, ' he says.

Stress guru, professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology, gives a contrasting picture of what he would do if in charge of a 10,000 workforce.

'By getting a representative sample from all departments to fill out a confidential questionnaire, you will identify departments in which there is a particular problem, ' he says 'In my experience, problems with stress occur because one division has a bullying or autocratic manager. Rather than train all of your managers, you deal with that particular department and get to the root of the problem.

You then benchmark your study by doing another survey the following year and comparing the results.'

A similar study was carried out on the Midlands division of the Environment Agency by Warwick Business School on behalf of public service union Unison. It found that two thirds of the Agency's Midlands staff were still feeling stressed following its birth as a Next Steps agency in 1996. It was then that the Agency was formed from the National Rivers Authority and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and local waste regulation bodies.

The report calls for greater care in managing employees' workload and greater openness from management. It concludes:

'There is evidently poor communication between departments, teams or management and lower levels. Senior management seems to have played an important role in shaping these negative feelings. The general feeling is that the organisation does not appear to care about its employees. The general perception is that people are easily replaceable and not of any particular value to the organisation'.

The Agency has yet to see the Warwick report, but Harmsworth defends its 1,000 plus managers. 'I haven't come across bullying management myself. One of the overwhelming things I have found since joining the Agency three years ago is that it is full of nice people, ' he says. 'We have comments back from people who have been through the confidential counselling services saying that when they spoke of their problems to their line managers they were absolutely fantastic about it. That doesn't sound like bullying management to me. But it would be wrong of me to assume that it won't come out of the focus groups.'

Stress: what it is, your rights

The Health & Safety Executive defines stress as 'the reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'. The main causes of stress according to UMIST's professor of organisational psychology and health, Cary Cooper are: Consistently long hours;

Autocratic or bullying management;

Inflexible working arrangements;

Lack of involvement in decision making; Role ambiguity;

Lack of training.

UK law does not specifically address stress or the mental and psychological well being of place, which embrace those of a psychological nature, and to base control measures on the assessment'.

The first successful prosecution of an employer on stress grounds was from care worker John Wallace who won £175,000 from Northumberland County Council in 1994 after suffering two breakdowns. 'This was the first case that established that stress is a compensable work related illness, ' says Cooper.

Four recent stress cases have resulted in employers paying out between £150,000 and £300,000. Cameron McKenna health and safety lawyer Alison Brown says that 'until now, many stress related cases have been settled out of court but there is increasing willingness by the courts to look at this issue. Stress is developing into a recognisable injury in its own right'.

In the future, a new code of conduct relating to stress management is likely to be enforced by HSE inspectors.

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