Best of SHP 2017: Is perceived stress really more important than serious injuries & fatalities?
Following IOSH president Graham Parker’s keynote address at this year’s annual conference, and an increased focus on wellbeing by other organisations and firms, Dominic Cooper asks: should mental health really be the future focus for safety and health practitioners?
Despite Graham Parker stating in his keynote address that every work-related death is avoidable and unnecessary at the recent two-day IOSH 2017 conference held in Birmingham, there seemed to be a heavy focus on stress, mental health and well-being, perhaps as a result of the Health and Safety Executive‘s (HSE) Help GB Work Well and EU-OSHA’s The Healthy Workplaces for All Ages campaigns.
Sadly, what did not seem to be discussed was strategic direction on how to help stop people being killed or maimed at work.
Over the past 31 years, there have been 8246 workplace fatalities, and 4.42 million serious injuries at work according to the latest HSE RIDDOR statistics.
The cost to UK business as well as to the victims, their families and the National Health and Benefit systems has been enormous. In the past year alone there were 137 fatalities and 70 thousand serious injuries. However, looking at such statistics, we tend to forget that death is permanent, as are loss of limbs, body organs, etc. Stressed people on the other hand are still alive and in one piece – albeit unhappy.
Work-related stress, depression, or anxiety is defined by the HSE as “a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work”. In other words, stress is due to a perceived imbalance between environmental demands and personal resources. However, very rarely does the profession make a distinction between eustress (good) and distress (bad) which recognises that everyone needs a certain amount of stress to perform well.
It appears stress has now become a catch-all phrase to encompass everyone’s unhappiness or dissatisfaction at work, whatever the reason. Clearly, someone experiencing chronic distress should not be at work, as they themselves could suffer a workplace injury, or cause an injury to someone else.
The trouble is finding the balance between eustress and distress for each individual at work, who cope differently to stressors. Plus, of course, we must remember that we can never separate people’s home-life stressors – e.g. divorce, bills, moving, boredom – from work. People do not leave their home stress at the door, just because they go to work. In other words, the safety profession will struggle to separate out work-related stress from home-related stress.
The recent 2017 release of statistics by the HSE about the prevalence of stress, anxiety and depression comes solely from the subjective Labour Force survey, where people self-report how they feel. Such surveys are fraught with methodological difficulties, and tend to be unreliable, and certainly should never be relied upon as the sole source of valid data to take national policy decisions.
A more objective method would be to ask the medical profession to provide statistics of those who have been treated for chronic distress, but this would take much more effort, and that’s assuming such statistics are even kept. However, it is interesting to note, that most of those reporting acute stress, anxiety, and depression are mostly public sector workers, particularly education, health and social care, who report workload pressures, including tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support as the root causes.
Clearly, in both the public and private sectors these factors are the remit of Human Resources departments, whose policies & practices determine staffing levels, and the competency of those working in their organisations. Perhaps the public sector has much to learn from the private sector, or perhaps those in the private sector are simply more resilient.
Served by other professions
Nonetheless stress, mental health, and well-being are topic areas of the workplace already well served by other professional bodies, such as the medical profession, counselors, human resource specialists, psychologists, and ergonomists.
Your average safety rep and safety manager or director is not an expert in stress, anxiety or depression. So the question becomes: “With limited resources, does the safety profession really need to get so heavily involved in these topic areas, to the detriment of basic HSE?
“After 30 years practice, I have a horrible feeling that the UK Safety Profession is losing its way, by trying to be all things to all men, crossing professional boundaries and losing its focus on the safety basics that actually stop people being killed and maimed in the workplace.
Am I right, or am I being alarmist? What do you think?
Dominic Cooper is CEO of behavioural safety experts, B-Safe Management Solutions
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