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Thursday, April 8, 1999 Published at 00:28 GMT 01:28 UK


Stress at work debate begins

Stress is estimated to affect 0.5m workers

Regulators are launching a UK-wide debate into whether employers should be prosecuted over workplace stress.

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones reports on one company's innovative approach to the issue
The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) is launching a 30-page discussion document on whether stress at work should be regulated under health and safety legislation.

It says up to half a million people a year develop stress at work.

But it is a difficult condition to diagnose and correct.

Frank Davies, Chairman of the HSC, said: "Stress is a difficult issue not only for employers and employees to manage, but also for us as a regulator.

"Because there are such wide-ranging opinions about stress, we have decided we need the views of a wide audience before deciding how to take this forward."

He added that it was clear that work could contribute to stress, but it was not the only cause.

What is stress?

The discussion document is divided into four themes:

  • What is stress, how it affects work and how work influences it
  • Whether stress at work should be regulated under health and safety law
  • If so, what are the best ways of tackling it
  • Whether the way forward is through partnerships between the different organisations interested in the subject

The document contains a draft approved code of practice on stress at work.

If there were support for this, then employers failing to follow it could be prosecuted in court.

But not everyone agrees that this is the best route for tackling stress.

The document will serve as a basis for a series of meetings on stress at work which the HSC is holding across the UK in June and July as it attempts to shape its policy.

Up to now, the HSC has only published guidance on how to deal with stress at work and no prosecutions have been taken against employers.

The Trades Union Congress, a member of the HSC along with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), says bullying is one of the main causes of stress.

The International Stress Management Association says 81% of the CBI see it as a serious problem, but adds that few employers do anything about it.

Different members of the HSC often differ over the causes of stress and how to reduce it.

Stress divide

Nick Isles, of the Institute of Personnel and Development, said different groups of workers were affected differently by modern working patterns.

Nick Isles of the Inst of Personnel and Devpt: Firms should learn to recognise early warning signs
He said: "If we look at the way the labour market has evolved in the 1990s, there seem to be two extremes.

"At one end there are part-time workers - largely women - and survey results seem to indicate they're basically happy and fairly stress free.

"At the other end we've seen an increase in full-time workers - largely men - who are working more than 48 hours a week."

He estimated that stress cost British industry £7bn a year - or two to three per cent of gross domestic product.

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