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Come together: addressing work-related stress

Employers must work with NHS trade unions to address work-related stress, says Kim Sunley.

Alongside musculoskeletal disorders, stress continues to be one of the main causes of absence across all sectors. The 2014-2015 Labour Force Survey found that stress accounted for 35 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and 43 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health. The main factors cited were workload pressures including too much responsibly, tight deadlines and a lack of managerial support.  
With those factors in mind, it is not surprising that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlights health professionals, including physiotherapists, as having one of the highest occupational rates of work-related stress.  
We all need pressure, such as achievable deadlines and agreed objectives in a bustling work environment, to thrive. But when that pressure becomes excessive and individuals lack the resources and support to manage it, stress raises its ugly head. Stress is a hackneyed term but behind the casual use of the word, there are workers affected by the serious physical and psychological manifestations of stress.
While a workplace without stress may seem like utopia, a workplace with high levels of stress is dysfunctional and, I would argue, failing both staff and patients. The evidence correlating healthy workplaces with happy staff and improved patient outcomes is increasing. Healthy workplaces find it easier to retain and recruit staff, which, with shortages of many healthcare professionals and restrictions on agency spend, is vital. Further, the cost of stress-related absence to the NHS is significant. 
What can we do about it? Over the past few years, in an attempt to address stress, some well-meaning employers have implemented initiatives such as resilience training and mindfulness alongside more established staff counselling provision. However, these are secondary and tertiary methods of addressing stress and what is missing is primary prevention, addressing the core issues. The HSE stress management standards provide an excellent way to both risk assess, a legal requirement, and identify the factors causing stress at work. Developed more than 10 years ago, it is time they were dusted down and implemented widely across the health sector.  
Undoubtedly, it’s a very difficult time for the NHS and its workforce. With managers under extreme pressure, finding time to identify and address the causes of work related stress can be a challenge. But by working in partnership with staff side representatives and engaging with staff to find out what the issues are and put in place actions, big or small, to reduce the risk of stress can reap benefits for both staff and patients. 
  • Kim Sunley is a senior employment relations adviser, Royal College of Nursing, and staff side chair of the NHS Staff Council’s health, safety and wellbeing partnership group.

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Article Information


Kim Sunley is a senior employment relations adviser, Royal College of Nursing, and staff side chair of the NHS Staff Council’s health, safety and wellbeing partnership group

Issue date

5 October 2016

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