Health and safety – law and mental stress.
Laws tell us that we must keep workers safe and healthy at work, this includes avoiding mental stress. Managers can be proactive in reducing workplace stress through a well organised workplace, and by training themselves and their teams to communicate well when emotions are raised.
“I have to ask – is asking/requiring an employee to work diligently and yes ‘hard’, in exchange for a fair pay packet classified as “stress inducing”? Will I have to remove ALL dangers to any form of stress that is induced by pulling finger and getting the job done??”
“I’m the boss in my business, and I suffer from stress consistently. Shall I ring my lawyer and ask him to start proceedings against my company and sue me for damages? I’ll be interested to see how the courts determine if I am the defendant or the plaintiff.”
“This is just more absurd, nonsense – legislation being dreamed up by lawyers, consistently looking at ways to line their pockets.”
These frustrated comments on a July 2013 article in the National Business Review titled “Stress: the hidden burden for bosses in new health and safety laws,” illustrates some of the exasperation that business owners and managers experience. They don’t realise that attending to good health and safety processes also leads to improved productivity.
Health and safety law in New Zealand requires employers to ensure that their employees are kept safe and avoid workplace hazards. Workplace stress is a hazard that is often overlooked. Most people experience some element of stress during their working day; there is good stress that leads to creativity and there is bad stress that leads to physical and emotional un-wellness.
Health and safety issues arise when stress creates unsafe working place for either the employee or their colleagues. When this happens there is an obligation on the employer to take steps to avoid any harm to employees.
The New Zealand Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 states that employers must take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of employees in their workplace. This includes identifying hazards that may injure others. While the most obvious things that people attend to are dangerous physical hazards, such as slippery floors, moving vehicles or unsafe ladders, the Health and Safety at Work Act also considers workplace stress to be a potential hazard for employees. When they identify such significant hazards within the workplace employers must take steps to eliminate, minimise or isolate these hazards.
Stress can be caused by the working conditions or events that occur in the workplace. There have been a number of cases where employees have taken court action against their employer for causing them stress. In one instance a branch manager in a retail chain was required to work for sixty hours a week without adequate support from the head office. She suffered burnout and depression and was eventually awarded lost wages and $20,000 for hurt and humiliation.
In another instance a barman in a tavern was subjected to three armed robberies in in a relatively short space of time. The employee developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. The court found that the employer had not taken sufficient steps to protect the employee from the incidents or from the stress that resulted.
The Health and Safety at Work Act is not the only protection from harm that employees can use. Employment law provides even more opportunities for personal grievance cases to be filed against employers who do not take adequate steps to protect employees from undue workplace stress. The time and cost of defending such cases is considerable and the final pay-outs where the employer has been found to be negligent can be substantial.
The examples above come directly from incidents that occur in the workplace and cause stress. There are a number of other less obvious workplace stressors than these cases that nevertheless can negatively affect employees. Hidden stressors such as tension between team members, difficult customers, and poor relationships between managers and staff not only lead to physical and emotional distress but directly affect productivity and brand image.
Having processes in place to overcome these stressful situations is important not only to fulfil the requirements of the law to minimise harm but also to improve productivity.
There are a number of practical steps that employers can take to overcome the risk of workplace stress.
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) where employees are encouraged to seek professional help when they are experiencing stress and difficulties that interfere with their work help both individuals and the whole organisation. Most large organisations have EAP arrangements and they can be very helpful for smaller businesses. I know of one business with about 20 employees that allocates budget each year to providing counselling and education in interpersonal communication for employees. The results show increased employee engagement and productivity as well as overall positive workplace culture and higher emotional intelligence among all workers because of this service.
- Having clear guidelines and structures so that employees know what their work is reduces stress. Making sure they receive help and support to do their work can further lessen stress. A well-organised workplace with clear objectives and reporting lines gives people certainty and reduces worry about not knowing their place in the business.
- Employees can also be encouraged to engage in healthy exercise, eating and generally living a well-balanced life. Providing information and support for good health and well-being including not having people work long hours or taking work home with them.
- Giving workers and managers the skills to deal effectively with emotions in the workplace is a powerful way to reduce the risk of harmful stress. Whenever I say that I teach people to manage emotions in the workplace, just about everyone responds with “We could do with that in our workplace”. It is one area that managers don’t pay very much attention to because most people can “get by” with what they currently do. What many managers don’t realise that “getting by” can be very stressful and unproductive.
Improving the quality of communication within teams reduces workplace stress and tension, leads to greater engagement and improves productivity. These are skills that can be learned by anyone and practiced within teams to avoid stressful disagreements and improve relationships with difficult customers.
It can be hard for business owners and managers to believe that this kind of training really would benefit their business. Many of them have worked hard and long to get to where they are today. They worked at practical things like creating their product, marketing and sales and managing cash flow along with all the other things needed for a business. It is stressful keeping a business going, keeping people employed and making a living for themselves and their families.
It’s understandable that those quoted at the top of this article are frustrated with the thought of having another regulation that they must follow. What they don’t realise is that attending to the mental stressors that can harm their employees will actually improve their business. Dealing with their own stress will do them the world of good too.
If they speak to their employees in the tone that they have written these comments then this itself will create stress for their employees. They can reduce this stress by learning these advanced communication skills. First of all they need to manage their own emotions and secondly they need to develop the skill to understand and manage the emotions in others. This is also called empathy training and is an important part of emotional intelligence. When people develop the ability to be empathetic towards one another they reduce the likelihood of stress in the workplace.
Stress – the hidden workplace hazard
An eBook for busy managers who care about team welfare and productivity