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New trends in workplace effect health - 10/2000

New trends in job design could create widespread mental health risks

Trends in job design intended to improve productivity and efficiency could cause widespread mental health problems among UK employees says a report on work-related stress from The Industrial Society, which urges the government to make guidance to employers on the links between job design and stress a priority.

New Work, New Stress will be launched by The Industrial Society's chief executive Will Hut ton, at the Labour Party Conference. It says that badly designed jobs which are repetitive and demanding, with low job control, for example those in many call centres, are bad for our mental health. The pressure of the new economy is making such jobs increasingly likely.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and subsequent regulations, employers have a statutory duty to safeguard the psychological health of their employees, but Pat McGuinness, author of the report, argues that current thinking on tackling workplace stress puts employers in a no-win situation. Guidance on job design is key, but policy makers also need to rethink definitions and approaches to stress to take into account the wide range of risks at play in today's workplaces.
Conventional ways of identifying and approaching stress are based on those for physical risk, but the differences between physical and psychosocial hazard, harm and risk are so great that they make a parallel approach unworkable. Employer initiatives which tackle stress in the same way as other occupational health issues will inevitably fail. This puts employers in a very difficult position when it comes to devising preventative strategies.

The report is critical of popular employer initiatives such as counselling or employee assistance programmes, lifestyle campaigns and stress management programmes. What these responses, rare as they still are, have in common is their emphasis on the individual's responsibility for controlling stress-related illness, it says. Stress audits, which are increasingly common, are often too subjective to be of any real use.

Instead companies should consider the impact of organisational changes, concentrate on training managers to spot signs of serious job strain and deteriorating mental health before they become a problem, and encourage workplace cultures which don't see stress as a sign of weakness.