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Stress 'shock' at the Environment Agency

THE ENVIRONMENT Agency is conducting a nationwide stress audit of its workforce amid fears that a 'bullying' management with no policy for dealing with stressed staff has led to a flood of absences.

New Agency board member Alan Dalton told NCE this week that he plans to recommend changes in the way the Agency deals with the issue after being 'shocked, surprised and very concerned' to find that it had no policy for dealing with stress.

Dalton is to prepare a report on stress levels at the Agency once he has gathered details of stress related illnesses among the 10,000 strong staff.

His findings will be passed back to Agency chairman Sir John Harman.

'There is no doubt that stress is a massive issue at the Agency and one we will be pursuing very rigorously, ' said Dalton. 'We need a totally different approach. We have got to pick up on this before sickness absence occurs.

The majority of board members recognise stress is a problem.'

Dalton added that the Agency was suffering from a high level of stress related absences which he believed was linked to the lack of a policy for dealing with stress at work. In particular, he pointed to the absence of management training for dealing with stressed employees.

Dalton joined the Agency last year from a health and safety role at the Transport & General Workers Union.

He said: 'We need to identify cases of bullying management. 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.'

However, the Agency's director of personnel Giles Duncan claimed that it already had an anti-bullying policy and formation of its anti-stress strategy was under way.

He said: 'We were aware that the formation of the Agency would be a stressful process and confidential counselling has been available to all staff since the Agency started.

The Agency has been working with the Health & Safety Executive and unions over the last year to agree a framework to develop a stress management strategy. An assessment will be carried out using staff focus groups to identify the causes of stress. It aims to complete its stress management strategy by the end of September.

But although Dalton is still waiting for finalised figures for stress at the Agency, a recent Midlands branch meeting of the public service union Unison identified 17 stress related cases in the Agency's Upper Severn area. Anecdotal evidence is also widely available to highlight the Agency's poor record on employee welfare.

One former employee who left the Agency last year suffering from stress said: 'There is a bombshell waiting to go off here. I have been in contact with people from other branches of the Agency and it's the same everywhere.'

He estimated that 100 man weeks had been lost through stress related absences at the Agency in the last year and 90 man hours the year before. He added: 'The appointment of Dalton is a fairytale ending for us.'

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