“now by far the most common health and safety problem at work.”
Even taking into consideration the inherent bias of such union surveys of reps, the figures are significant. The 24 February 2011 media release states:
“Nearly two thirds (62%) of reps say that stress is in the top five problems faced by the workers they represent and more than a quarter of reps (27%) pick out stress as the hazard at work that most concerns them. Another recent report from the British Academy states that the global economic downturn is to blame for the soaring stress levels due to the sharp rise in job strain and job-insecurity; both determinants of work-related stress. In the last 2 years, work stress levels rose by more than 4%, compared to the previous rises of 0.1% from 1992 to 2009.” [link added]
So what can be done to reverse this trend?
If the global economic downturn has generated increased stress levels, OHS practitioners and activists need to look at the big picture and begin pushing for better economic health – an action that, outside of the union movement, hardly ever gets a mention.
If OHS principles are based around the need to eliminate hazards then OHS professionals should be strong advocates of sustainable development where the mental health of workers needs as much support for sustainability as the environment receives, if not more.
Coincidentally on 24 February 2011, the European Commission released a progress report on its work-related stress agreement. The success of the agreement has been that, in those Member States who have co-operated, there is an increased awareness of the importance of work-related stress. But awareness is not control. OHS regulators are leading the horse to water but it is not drinking. The well-established damage that stress is causing can only be reduced by action. The horse must drink.
But to control stress, social change is required and it is the magnitude of this challenge that beats the OHS regulators.
In many ways strategies to control psychosocial hazards, such as stress, reflect strategies to control the environmental impacts of climate change. It is becoming very clear that the Western World cannot maintain its current high standard of living without further damaging the global climate. Decisions must be taken that will reduce that standard of living of society for the sake of the planet. This change in social values and expectations has forged a path that, understandably, “brave” OHS regulators must eventually follow.
An individual who has suffered harm from work-related stress will take little comfort in the achievement of increased awareness of the hazard in others. They want, and deserve, the harm to be minimised or eliminated. The task of OHS professionals is to prevent harm and harm from work-related stress cannot be achieved without cultural and organisational change at individual workplaces and across industry sectors. To echo the paragraph above – It is becoming very clear that the Western World cannot maintain its current high standard of living without further damaging the mental health of many of its workers. Decisions must be taken that will reduce the level of profit of companies for the sake of the mental health of workers.
To some extent, the impacts of psychosocial hazards and work-related stress have already been established. We are now at a similar stage in workplace mental health issues to that already experienced on other health issues, such as smoking and asbestos. The harm has been established and the next stage is to make the hard decisions that require give and take. Someone will need to reduce their expectations of profitability and economic growth for the sake of a sustainable and profitable workforce.
Who will be that first brave pioneer of mental health?