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August 22, 2012

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Stress/Training – Approval ratings

Traditionally thought of as a soft skill, stress management is becoming increasingly important for businesses looking to maintain a resilient workforce. Sadie Hopson explains how a new standardised approach to training practitioners in this field should help improve the quality of learning and confidence in the profession.

In the past few years of economic decline, the challenges endured by many in the working community have highlighted the business case for enhanced soft skills.

Stress management is one topic that has consistently attracted interest in the soft-skills training arena; undoubtedly, its prominence has been bolstered by worrying figures relating to absenteeism, presenteeism and litigation, not to mention underlying issues surrounding productivity, performance, staff turnover and morale.

‘Black death’

In research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) last year, stress topped the list of reasons for long-term sickness absence for the first time in the survey’s history.1 Indeed, well-being expert Professor Cary Cooper has even described stress as the “black death of the 21st century”.2

Despite recent studies suggesting that businesses are starting to get to grips with absenteeism – at least, the short-term variety – such statistics should be interpreted with caution. Taking other factors into consideration, it may well be the case that these figures reflect an increase in presenteeism, with workers becoming less inclined to inform their employer of their failing health through fear of repercussions and, instead, attempting to struggle on, often exacerbating their symptoms.

Furthermore, a direct result of increased stress is, unsurprisingly, an upsurge in related claims. The number of employees suffering from stress has doubled over the past decade, with 211,000 new cases reported in 2010/11.1 Large pay-outs are being awarded for cases relating to work-related stress and, as a result, corporate insurers are being forced to increase premiums to offset the sums being granted.

At a time of tight financial constraints, few organisations can afford to avoid these costly issues. So, the question arises: what options are there for concerned employers looking to address the issue of stress management among their workforce?

The possible answers are myriad, including internal/external training courses, e-learning packages, risk-assessors and occupational-health therapists. Yet, all are virtually impossible to formally measure or regulate, owing to the lack of a recognised benchmark for best practice. Ultimately, many training programmes designed to manage psychosocial risks often fall short of meeting the needs of businesses.

Other fields in the health and safety arena have recommended parameters for best practice and established forms of certification for professionals providing services in the field,3 yet the stress management profession has been void of any such structure since its inception. Recognising the gap in the sector for regulated stress management guidance, the International Stress Management Association (ISMAuk) has worked in collaboration with the BSI to develop standards in this area.

Measurable standard

Working closely with the HSE, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Nottingham University, the primary objective of ISMAuk during the development process was to provide the industry with a source of knowledge on how to create a psychosocial risk-management (PRM) policy that is both measurable and auditable. To this end, the development of PAS 10104 expresses the appropriate methodology for policy design and implementation, while the still-to-be-launched PAS 1012 defines a Code of Practice for service-providers that fits with corporate governance structures.

The PAS steering committee consisted of global organisations with a collective knowledge of the subject, including representatives from the insurance industry. Despite their varied perspectives on the issues at hand, all parties agreed that all PRMs should conform to the new standards. This means that when insurers inquire about an organisation’s PRM policy, they have a universal benchmark for best practice that can be applied when calculating the risk and subsequent cover. These standards therefore provide a level of quality assurance for both the guidance provided and the service-provider involved in the process.

This quantifiable approach to establishing competency in PRM is a significant step for the stress management profession but it requires in-house practitioners to become well-versed in the guidelines and understand the changes and the steps that need to be followed to enforce practical and effective policies. This will take time and training to sustain consistency in approach.

Similarly, external practitioners specialising in PRM will need to follow the guidelines to ensure they remain at the forefront of their profession, and that their services meet the expectations of both the business community and insurers. Learning the key skills and operational procedures, in conjunction with the BSI standards, is essential for best practice, which is why ISMA and its training partner, Working for Wellbeing,5 have developed an educational programme based on these guidelines.

Course curricula

This programme provides delegates with core knowledge of the standards, instilling an in-depth understanding of the PRM process. Trainees will be required to demonstrate an entry level of knowledge of stress management as a pre-requisite, although interested participants lacking in this area can sit an initial foundation course.
The vast array of subjects covered across the different courses includes:

  • the definitions of psychosocial risk management;
  • the legal obligations as set out by the HSE and EU;
  • comprehensive guidance on the components of a successful psychosocial risk policy;
  • the effects of bullying and harassment;
  • the HSE management standards; and
  • measurements for intervention based on a series of markers.

After undertaking training and assessment – a process built around ISMAuk-certified training programmes and manuals, and which adopts a wide range of testing methods to measure different competencies – delegates will be accredited to undertake projects specific to the relevant standard.

Building trust in the system

Forming a collective of educated and enlightened professionals will shape the foundations for effective stress management, but training in line with the BSI guidelines for PRM is just one step in the fight to reduce stress in the workplace; a mechanism to continually evaluate the effectiveness of the subsequent service delivery and its impact on the reduction of stress in the workplace is also essential.

Conscious of this need, Working for Wellbeing developed a bespoke administration system to support the training programme. All practitioners that successfully pass the course/s will be placed on a Stress Management Practitioner Register as a recognised and approved practitioner, with those who pass all the courses being rewarded with the title of Master Stress Management Practitioner. These individuals would then have the opportunity to progress on to a ‘Train the Trainer’ course to further spread awareness of the standards, building a growing base of accredited professionals.

Once registered on the system, all relevant services will be logged and recorded, providing an evidence-based audit trail for interested parties. Not only does this provide organisations with the peace of mind that they are able to access an approved resource when a requirement arises but they will also, for the first time, be able to access crucial information regarding quality of work.

Furthermore, this will provide credible and quantifiable data on the benefits of PRM, confronting the perception of stress management as a ‘fluffy concept’. For convenience, registered parties are also able to select suitable training courses, with options including trainer availability and credentials, dates and venues.


The standards and accompanying training programmes are at a pivotal stage in their development, with the imminent formal launch of PAS 1012 and the steady building of partnerships with organisations looking to adopt a proactive stance in advocating the standards in their workplace. Courses are being coordinated and attended across the country, and momentum is gathering.

Less than a year ago, at the annual ISMA conference, Conservative MP David Amess emphasised the need for better and more effective regulations to be introduced,6 in order to respond to the growing problem of stress management. To date, the nature of the industry has, for the most part, consisted of a reactive ‘sticking-plaster’ approach that disregards the root causes of stress. Professionals involved in employee health and well-being are now able to fully engage in the movement for standardisation and gain confidence in demonstrating a proactive approach to effective stress management.

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Sadie Hopson is MD of Euthenia Touch, a corporate stress-management company.

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