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April 11, 2022

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‘Brexit Means Brexit’ – How does the UK’s approach to stress and mental health compare to the approach across Europe?

In the second of a series of articles for Stress Awareness Month, Paul Verrico and Sarah Valentine from law firm Eversheds Sutherland consider how the UK’s approach to stress and mental health compares to the approach across Europe.

Sarah Valentine

Sarah Valentine

Brexit promised a land of opportunity for British business, with one much vaunted advantage the opportunity to set domestic laws to help employers be more competitive, to cut through the EU red tape that was allegedly strangling business. How has this developed in the field of stress management, given increased demands of work can increase allostatic load? Has the UK departed from its European neighbours or are the employment systems aligned?

Managing the working environment and the various interplaying factors of work-related stress is complicated, with nearly as many subtle variations as there are individuals who are affected. It is trite but true that work-related stress is now the biggest cause of working days lost through occupational injury and ill-health. The three physiological processes of frequent stress, the inability to shut off and an inadequate response are often cited as the key stressors which affect mental health.  Whilst pressure can have a positive impact on raising performance, when such pressures become excessive this can lead to negative consequences (McEwan, The End of Stress as We Know It, 2002).

As part of the Social Dialogue process, a non-binding agreement on work-related stress has been reached at European level. The primary aims of the agreement are to increase awareness and draw attention to the signs that could indicate problems of work-related stress.

In the UK, the duty on employers to effectively manage work related stress falls under their duty ‘to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees.’ This is achieved through a risk assessment led approach with the focus on prevention rather than the cure. We have definitely seen an increased awareness and focus on work-related stress by the HSE over recent years. This has been demonstrated by the stress management standards and toolkits. This framework is mirrored by our European neighbours, who have similar requirements to risk assess and promote good management practice and more widely, within the international community with the introduction of the ISO:45003 on managing psychological risks. Crucially, enforcement by HSE in the UK in this area is very light touch.

Paul Verrico

Paul Verrico

Across Europe, wellbeing strategies are used as a mechanism by organisations to manage work-related stress levels. We have seen in the last 24 months the value that wellbeing -based interventions can have on a workforce. It is arguable that greater focus on promoting a good work-life balance has been essential during the pandemic, as the working day on average has increased by 50 minutes alongside out-of-hours communications. Boundaries between work and home have become blurred primarily through digital technology.

Our European neighbours are leading the march on detoxification and we have seen a definitive shift in the ‘right to disconnect’ following the pandemic. Whilst attempts by France and Germany in 2014 and 2016 sought to ban out-of-hours emails, little traction occurred. Following the pandemic, France and Germany have revisited the concept, with labour laws now requiring organisations to negotiate agreement on the right to disconnect with employees. In response to the ‘always-on-culture,’ Slovakia has introduced a new law on flexible working arrangements and Ireland has introduced a code of practice to require organisations to deliver proactive engagement, training, reviews and equity checks. Canada and the Netherlands are currently reviewing and debating their legal frameworks on these issues but are likely to follow suit.

Whilst the HSE standards and toolkit enable organisations to implement a stress management framework, organisations are encouraged to develop their own policies which may include restrictions to out-of-hour communications, time delays on sending emails out-of-hours, switching off mobile phones at a weekend, changing email signatures to state hours of availability and the introduction of a communications charter to establish a code of practice. It is also important that organisations do not ‘walk the walk but also talk the talk’ when it comes to embedding their wellbeing strategies and that senior personnel lead by example. None of these suggestions are enshrined in law in the UK.

Whether it was anticipated that Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would create a different control environment in this area or not, the reality is that good organisations will adopt and endorse ISO : 45003 which is an international standard. Without a regulatory mechanism, it remains to be seen how great the desire to fully commit will be across UK Plc’s, although multi-national companies will likely adopt the same approach globally. We hope Stress Awareness Month is a useful marker to remind employers to take this area of wellbeing appropriately seriously.

Click here to read the first article in this mini series, Where are we on managing work-related stress and does the ESG agenda help?

If you have any questions about the topics discussed in this article or would like more information, please contact Paul Verrico or Sarah Valentine.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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