• Jonathan Pittam

Are stress risk-assessments & audits a waste of time?

Money well spent?

How much money has your organisation spent on stress risk assessments and stress audits?

Maybe nothing, or maybe thousands. But do they work? I guess before we can identify whether or not they work, we need to know what our objectives were for using them in the first place.

For many businesses its quite simple, they want to reduce the costs of stress-related absenteeism, presenteeism, and staff turnover. And quite understandably, as these costs can be astronomical.

Caring increases loyalty

An employee being asked to complete a stress risk assessment or audit might appreciate the fact that their employee is clearly showing they care, and the value of this in itself is important, but does the procedure itself help the business with its objectives, and are there better ways of showing you care?

A massive assumption

One problem with stress risk assessment and audit processes is that they begin with the assumption that everybody means the same thing when they use the word ‘stress’.

The HSE (Health & Safety Executive) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”, and gives six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they aren’t managed:

1. Demands

2. Control

3. Relationships

4. Support

5. Understanding role & responsibilities

6. Change

Is this what your employees mean by 'stress' when they respond to stress audits and risk assessments?

An objective tool to measure the subjective?

Essentially the word stress can be used to define any negative emotional state or circumstance. Stress is subjective, different things affect different people. As Hamlet said, “No thing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”.

So, using tools designed to measure objective physical risks was always going to have a hard time reliably measuring subjective factors such as stress. Everybody can agree that a slippery floor is a hazard, but can we say the same for certain levels of workload?

An essential starting point for all stress audits and risk assessments

If there’s one thing all organisations using these tools must do from the very start, it’s to define what they actually mean by stress. Whilst not everybody agrees with the HSE’s definition, it’s the definition they use and base their work on.

You may decide to adopt theirs, or define your own, but whatever you do make sure you actually define it, and make it clear to everybody taking part. Otherwise, you’re measuring something with the aim of modifying it, but haven’t stated what exactly the ‘it’ is.

As unscientific as it gets

In the scientific community any research that doesn’t define its key terms wouldn’t be taken seriously. After all, how can we accurately observe something if we’re not sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Imagine a global survey of ‘happiness’, that doesn’t start by saying “by happiness we mean……” You’d end up with lots of results conflating factors such as wealth, materialism, success and fulfilment with happiness, and a pretty meaningless set of final data.

A suggestion if I may

To save your organisation time and money, and to achieve the objective of managing stress-related absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover, a more human approach might potentially yield more fruit.

That is the approach of managers having regular communications with their team members and asking them if anything is currently affecting them in a detrimental way. You might often find that most people are fine, whereas the audit and risk assessment approach might just encourage people to assume something should be wrong?