Author Bio ▼

Dominic Cooper PhD is a chartered fellow of IOSH and a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers. He is co-founder and CEO of BSMS Inc., a global safety consulting firm based in Franklin, IN, USA. A chartered psychologist, Dominic consults with senior executives on safety leadership, culture and behaviour change. He has authored many books, articles and scientific research papers on safety culture, behavioural-safety and leadership.

November 27, 2017

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Opinion

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.

Harmful reaction

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.

Subjective survey

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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SHP’s latest legislation eBook covers recognition of mental health issues in the workplace, the reclassification of mild welding fume as a human carcinogen, new manslaughter definitive guidelines, PPE, Brexit, drone safety regulations and much more…

  • Recognition of Mental Health Issues in the Workplace
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  • Bouncy Castles and Other Play Inflatables: Safety Advice
  • Revision of Standards for Powered Doors, Gates and Barriers
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  • Modern Slavery Act Review
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  • Health and Safety (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018
  • Ionising Radiation
  • Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Diving) Regulations 2018 (Ireland)
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Jim
Jim

Although I do agree with you that the basis of HSE is to prevent harm, injury and ill health, especially in industries such as manufacturing and construction. When it comes to work in places like offices, mental health and stress is a significant risk to the business which could lead to long term ill health if not talked about and dealt with compassionately and efficiently.

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Thanks Jim, but is it the business of the safety profession to do the work of other more qualified professions?

Sean Ed
Sean Ed

Dominic, I would say it is down to each of us to decide where our own experience/knowledge reaches it’s limits and indeed if we should train further to go into areas such as mental health. I work with a wide array of companies and premises from office to construction and manufacturing and mental health is an issue at almost all places. Convincing all companies to use resources to support staff in this way is in my experience unlikely (maybe I’m not persuasive enough yet!) so taking a holistic view of H&S, I feel I can best serve the employees by… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

We need more ‘Devils Advocates’ out there to test how hot it truly is in the kitchen but, to suggest absenteeism and sick-notes will provide a clue is simply flawed, as who, in their right mind, is going to ‘disclose’ the real reason for a work-stress induced sickie day or three off work as the majority now suffering in, sort of, silence manifesting in the ‘far from subjective’ rise in “presenteeism” and some £30bn odd cost of lost productivity is a reality check, let alone the associated £60bn social costs. “Work Exposure Limits” (WEL) are increasingly being standardised and the… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Agree that Occupational Health IS in the safety professions remit, but this is largely about objective physical health (e.g preventing lung disease, exposure to chemicals etc), not perceived mental health. One person’s bad stressor is another person’s challenge for personal growth

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

The trouble is currently the words ‘Mental Health’ are being used as an umbrella term, much like the ‘Dementia’ is for any age related decrement in perceivably sub-optimal performance and productivity due to over-exposure to any stressor leading to adaptation exhaustion and ill-health that is quantifiable or qualitative and can be measured or diagnosed objectively. Wellbeing, on the other hand, more accurately reflects the predictable exposure to known work-stress hazards / risks whether environmental, material or psychological experienced by far too many dismissed as a “lack of resilience” pre-break down in physical and/or mental health. This has been the excuse… Read more »

Bob
Bob

Dominic, I agree that perceived stress is being used to determine the levels of mental health issues within industry and that safety is sometimes being side-lined with the emphasis upon MH management in companies. As OH&S practitioners, our main focus is upon physical health, but we are increasingly being expected to assist HR and management when dealing with MH. In my experience across various industries over the past 15 years; it is rarely work which triggers the issue, but generally something from the personal life of the employee. A significant number then use work as the excuse and try to… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Thanks for the info on the TED Talk. Great video gives much more insights into stress and effects https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend . BTW one of my daughters is a social worker, and she works 7 days a week (and is always on call). She copes by doing physical sports (skydiving & climbing) when time allows. In other words she has found a way to shake off the demands by doing stuff she enjoys (even though it worries the hell out of me!).

Heather
Heather

Dear both In 25 years management experience I have found it difficult to distinguish between stress caused by Home or work – they feed off each other and who leaves their work life at the home door any more like my dad used to? iPhones are there to be answered … People face very different stresses these days – no longer about survival – but there is an argument that our brains were not built to deal with the fast pace “always on” nature of modern life. Whatever your thoughts about people with perceived stress leading to anxiety and depression… Read more »

Heather
Heather

Ps Dr Dom I left a big comment on your article this morning and it hasn’t come up – maybe they are moderating for profanity 😉 just a joke – I do agree with some of your points if not the overall thrust of your article x

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

As an after thought to comments, I am pretty sure, although of longer latency, Work related Non-communicable Diseases (NCD’s) are more prevalent than the immediacy of KSI’s – being killed or seriously injured, were there any, sort of, competition between the two.

Tim
Tim

Hello, I am not in a position to agree with your assumption that recognising Stress and mental health will be to the detriment of basic H&S. H&S professionals like safety issues, they are defined, tangible, black or white, with solutions may be shades of grey according to the level of acceptable risk. But what of the ‘health’ in H&S? With serious safety instances falling, awareness improving, Professionals must look beyond the safety issues, and address any health concerns. Stress is catching up with back complaints as the biggest working time lost. Company’s will not have on tap access to the… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

The whole point of challenging the current trend of focusing on stress and mental health, is that the UKs serious incidents and fatalities are not falling. The fatality rate has plateaued over the past 7 years, with some annual variation. Last years 70K serious injuries reported in RIDDOR equates to 192 people being maimed at work PER DAY!, In contrast, HSE mental health absence report estimates based on GP records are around 480 per year! A vast difference to the estimated 526,000 figures being bandied about by the HSE based on data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). The Mental… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine

I agree, both as a health and safety professional and as someone who has had absence from work due to stress. I can tell you that my stress was not perceived, but very real. Yes, we have health in our titles but we have shied away from it for far too long as it is on the “hard to do” pile, compared with safety issues presenting immediate risks.

Heather Beach
Heather Beach

Hello Dom , nice to see you playing devils advocate on this one when are you in London so we can have a proper chat? There are aspects of what you say I agree with – namely for some H&S professionals to risk assess for stress as the HSE management standards would have – is a stretch it’s a very different type of risk assessment…. about how people interact with people rather than objects – having said that the ones who really get the cultural piece are perfectly placed todo it – maybe the best person in the organisation to… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Hi Heather. Not much fun playing devil’s advocate in this instance, but necessary. You are probably right that we are more likely to come across people ‘feeling’ stressed than an accident victim, but that will largely depend on your work environment (i.e. office vs industry). Most who have spoken to me about Stress at Work, concentrate on office people, although someone was trying to tell me that 436 people committed suicide last year in the construction industry alone – when challenged if these were due to work-related stress there was no response, simply because it is unknown. The original study… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

” risk assessment…. about how people interact with people rather than objects ” There is NO-WAY that anyone is suggesting H&S Professionals should become all touchy feely counselors CBT trained for negotiating true or false assessment of any emotional / psychosomatic risk of employees self-harming / medicating ant-acids, energy drinks / coffee, alcohol whatever, stress related symptoms at all at all. Nevertheless, FM is very tangible object, in terms of environmental wellbeing / health and safety, shift / work patterns are again critical when guarding against human errors or fatigue related mishaps, misjudgment, oversight or omissions founded in work stress… Read more »

Gareth Broughton
Gareth Broughton

I think this is always a difficult issue; from my perspective i think there are things that safety Professionals can do to improve employee health in relation to stress. In a previous HSE role I did a lot of work with Fire Services and there is no doubt that being a firefighter is a stressful job; i recall the FBU raising the issue in the 90’s because the number of suicides and family break-ups and divorce amongst firefighters was much higher than the national average for example. As a safety professional and inspector, could I wield any influence to reduce… Read more »

Paul Bizzell
Paul Bizzell

Hi Dom, in answer to your question – neither, just plain wrong-headed! Would you like to be driven in a taxi or train by a stressed driver, or worse flown by a fatigued or depressed pilot? There are obvious additional risks introduced into the workplace by a lack of wellbeing, whether physical or mental. I don’t think anyone is saying we should abandon classic safety in favour of wellbeing anymore than you or I would say we should abandon classic safety in favour of Behavioural Safety. The fundamentals are essential and a foundation to build on but increasingly never enough.… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Hi Paul. Not sure the difference is small, hence the article. I think more than anything it is a case of prioritisation. I would prefer the profession eliminated serious injuries and fatalities before it moves on and embraces other topics.

Paul Bizzell
Paul Bizzell

Hi Dom, well we’re agreed that we’d both like to see serious injuries and fatalities eliminated 🙂 I just don’t see how that’s possible when lack of wellbeing is a clear contributory, if not primary, factor in some serious and fatal accidents. The differences are small, it’s two short steps from Behavioural Safety via Ergonomics to wellbeing. HSG 48 makes several references to stress and stressors and there are 2 pages devoted to “Designing jobs for mental well-being”. As per my comment elsewhere in the thread, Stress is to Wellbeing what Accidents are to Safety, a trailing indicator that there’s… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Hi Paul, I have yet to see well-being cited as a contributory factor in a workplace incident (though that’s not to say they do not exist). I do agree that Human Error traps lead to failures in planning (knowledge/rule based), failures in execution (distraction/memory failures) or behavioural choices (short-cuts, optimising, overcoming org. problems), that in turn may lead to an incident. One known human error trap is “Person not fit for work” (i.e. heads not in the game before/after a break/leave period). I guess if someone is really stressed (looks and feels like frustration) they could conceivably cause an incident.… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

I say, this has stimulated more reaction than anything else in recent times and, as someone who is actually diagnosed with a mental health condition (Bipolar) along with a shed load of other physical / neurological deficits / heart disease stuff, unexpected by age 45, driven by a damaged immune system. Anyway, luckily the gift of Dyslexia always compensated as, an engineering design consultant, enabling me to earn a reputation for seeing opportunities rather than problems, out of the box, solution orientated, go to, ‘fix-it’ person when conventional ” can’t do that mindset ” approaches spectacularly failed. Maybe, that is… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Hi Nigel. Very erudite. Clearly you make some valid points that I hope people will make use of. As I replied to Paul earlier my concern is for the HSE professionals to focus on eliminating serious injuries & fatalities. Thus it is a case of prioritisation. However, if during that process, factors are identified that can also help reduce the demands on people, then why not deal with them. Best wishes

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

Just fascinated to note the increase in use of Equality Act, in preference to occupational health regulation / legislation, as this defines a debilitating health deficit, that lasts for 12 months or more, as a “Disabling” harm or injury therefore, enabling a claim to proceed into court. This then potentially opens the flood gates, along with the ‘retrospective’ findings in the court of appeal in Baker V Quantum Clothing & Ors that, the expediency of solely complying with safety regulation in the light of ‘current knowledge’ is insufficient defense when it is “known or should be known” that existing “work… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
Paul Cookson
Paul Cookson

A refreshingly provocative discussion with more posts than most I’ve seen for a long time! At the foundry I work for we are aiming at a new stage in the company of behavioural change and employee engagement. This is coming along nicely and even the “old boys” are now starting to buy into the need for certain safety standards and work in a safer way and open up with ideas they have held back, supressed for many years. We all see, read and contribute to many articles and topics during the year and engage with the industry bodies and such… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

So a summary of this debate to date seems appropriate. As well as this page on SHP there have been two threads on linkedin. What have we learned? Well clearly there are three schools of thought. The first is that safety professionals should concentrate on reducing SIF incidents and maintaining a focus on the basics. The second is that Mental Health issues have historically been overlooked and underfunded within the HSE profession and that it is time for a change. Third, that the HSE professional should be able to do both at the same time. All are valid arguments, depending… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

Soooo, where does the £30bn cost of presenteeim come from and, if not related to mental health as, a generic header for sub-optimal wellbeing founded in either environmental, physical and/or psychosocial deficits accounting for some 20% lost productivity, does it solely come from KSI cases? Does it include or exclude WULD’s and MSD’s or is anything less than a KSI is only a near miss that doesn’t really count regardless of productivity losses due to presenteeism not including social costs? When does the expediency of overlooking or turning a blind eye to implementing regulation / legislation not come back to… Read more »

Peter Stewart
Peter Stewart

Indeed, it is not the job of the HSE manager to be involved in the care and rehab of persons with mental health issues. However, surely it is part of their job to analyse if workplace factors are contributory?
I am also mindful that a single case of stress does not mean the workplace is broken, but it might well act as a trigger to begin thinking about what may have been a contributory cause. If the problem then becomes more widespread they woudl be better armed to help develop strategies to mitigate the identified causes.

Douglas Cameron
Douglas Cameron

Excellent article which I totally agree with all points made

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Thanks Douglas. Appreciate your support

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

DSE compliance “at just 10%”, study claims – need I say more ?

Phil Hopkins
Phil Hopkins

Hi Dominic, Mental health or mental wellbeing should be a focus for health and safety practitioners, clearly not to the detriment of taking actions to avoid or reduce future workplace death and serious physical injury. The causes of the latter are well documented and well understood by H&S professionals. Why Is a strategy or campaign required to kick start people into action on what is a well-known issue? Less widely known are the issues surrounding mental health in the workplace and this justifies the campaigning which is going on. By their very nature, H&S practitioners seek to prevent harm to… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

People are asking me why is a focus on serious injuries & fatalities needed, when it is a known problem, and the scale of the Mental Health problem is thought to be much greater. Well, up to Mid-October in 2017 there were 73 workplace deaths recorded via RIDDOR to the HSE. At approximately 511 serious injuries per death we can estimate a further 37,300 serious injuries so far (based on 70K serious injuries / 137 deaths in 2016/17). We are only half way through the year, so may well end up by years end with around 146 deaths!!! Of those… Read more »

safetylady
safetylady

I’m with you, Dominic.
Politics is driving this MH/stress preoccupation; we need to keep our focus on the real H&S issues.

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Thanks Safety Lady. I really appreciate your support

Simon
Simon

Interesting discussion. I won’t add to what has already been said, but, unless I missed something on my scamper through the posts, very little has been mentioned about training people to manage stress in the first place? You can have two guys at work with identical jobs, one who has a pile of paper everywhere and the desk is in a mess and he is clearly struggling and another who has a clear desk, a smile on his face and is relatively fulfilled. Why can one manage the stress better? Can the other one be educated to manage it? I… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

I have been looking at the academic workplace stress literature to try and get a better feel for the size of the MH problem. Meta-analytic studies involving millions of people show there is no clear statistically significant relationships between workplace stress and actual outcomes such as cancer (Heikkilä,et al, 2013), diabetes (Sui, 2016), coronary heart disease (Virtanen, 2103) or sickness absenteeism (Darr & Johns, 2008). Conversely, symptoms of psychological stress are over reported in nearly all “stress” surveys (Goodwin et al.,,2103). Such independent results, as I have been arguing, again point to the size of the MH problem being over-stated,… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

Nevertheless, the cumulative, compound affect of workplace psychosocial stressors identified in the longitudinal civil service Whitehall ‘II’ Study has been used by the WHO as the foundation for their Global Better Workplace Nudge Campaign promoting the development of occupational health strategies to address the human factors insidiously affecting employees physical and emotional “Wellbeing”, over time, as a driver of resultant injury to the individual employees physical and/or Mental Health. “Fatigue” has also been recognised as a Safety Critical element in many, so called accidents, ending in significant numbers being KSI following disaster investigations into the chain of causation so, I… Read more »

Myles
Myles

Although I agree that there is a risk in adding burdens to OS&H practitioners that should rightly sit in the line management structure, there is overlap between stress and injury given the strong risk factor of workplace stress itself in causing safety to be ignored. Anecdotally, I’m sure we’re all familiar with stories of corners being cut when people are under pressure to deliver with insufficient resources.

Dom Cooper
Dom Cooper

Nigel, you highlight another area of collective failure of the HSE profession. If we cannot resolve our current agenda why would we wish to add further burdens?