Last week we looked at the legal risks associated with stress in the workplace and started to consider the HSE Stress Management Standards – this week we’ll explain in more detail what the HSE recommends as regards an across the organisation risk assessment and I’ll give a lawyer’s view of all of this.

Undertaking a Management Standards risk assessment

Last week we looked at the HSE’s Management Standards which represent a set of conditions that are intended to:
  • Demonstrate good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment approach.
  • Enable assessment of an employer’s current situation using pre-existing data, surveys and other techniques.
  • Promote active discussion and working in partnership with employees and their representatives, to help decide on practical improvements that can be made.
  • Help simplify risk assessment for work-related stress by:
    • identifying the main risk factors;
    • helping employers focus on the underlying causes and their prevention; and
    • providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends a five-step approach to risk assessments for work-related stress. By following this correctly an employer will demonstrate that it has taken a “suitable and sufficient” approach to its duty to undertake a risk assessment to protect employees from stress at work, which would be useful evidence if you ever faced claims. Your insurer is also likely to be interested in knowing what steps you have taken.


Preparation before you begin
The HSE recommends undertaking the following preparatory work:
  • Senior management needs to understand both the business case for stress management and the employer’s legal duties. As a result, it should commit to tackle work-related stress and provide adequate resources (particularly time) to do so. 
  • Ensure that employees (and their representatives) are committed to participate in the process. It is important for an employer to remember that staff may need support to participate effectively. For example, line managers may want more information about the Management Standards process and staff may need assistance when being asked to participate in workplace surveys. 
  • Set up a steering group. This group will typically include senior and line managers, health and safety managers, trade union health and safety representatives, employee representatives as well as representatives from human resources and occupational health. 
  • Develop a project plan.
  • Develop a communications and employee engagement strategy.
The employer is then ready to undertake the assessment.

The HSE points out that while undertaking a risk assessment is concerned with preventing and managing common health problems and improving the performance of an employer’s organisation, the process is continuous. The evaluation and monitoring activities suggested as the final step should merge into everyday management after the assessment has been undertaken. Employers may also need to review their existing policies and procedures (for example, their anti-bullying and harassment or sickness absence policies) in the light of findings from their risk assessments.

Step 1: identify the stress risk factors

This involves members of the steering group, and others involved in the project, gaining a clear understanding of the six Management Standards (and considering how these map onto the employer’s organisation). 

The HSE suggests that employers should first focus on organisational level issues that potentially impact on a group and possibly large numbers of employees since it is more effective to remove a stressor or significantly reduce its impact than it is to manage lots of individual cases. Once the employer has put in place an organisational approach, it needs to consider how to help those who may already be experiencing problems.

Before moving to the second step, the members of the steering group and others involved in running the risk assessment process should have a clear understanding of the Management Standards approach, including:

  • The six standards.
  • How the approach translates to their organisation.
  • Work-related stress risk factors that may be specific to their organisation or workplace.
  • A focus on preventing and managing the root causes of work-related stress.
  • A focus on exploring organisational level issues. 
Step 2: decide who might be harmed and how
The second step requires the steering group to assess any gap between the employer’s current performance and the position that the Management Standards seeks to achieve. This can be done by data gathering and analysis. 


There are likely to be existing sources of data that can be used to identify the extent to which work-related stress is a problem in the organisation. Most employers collect data about sickness absence (whether through self-certification or fit notes) and staff turnover and their use of exit interviews. Productivity data that shows a lower than expected performance (when compared with previous years or between different parts of the organisation) may indicate a problem. Information may also be available from disciplinary action, staff or union complaints, and comments made in team meetings or at performance appraisals.

The HSE recommends using more than one source of data and for employers to look for consistency in the messages they are giving. For example:

  • If a single team has a few disciplinary issues, it may indicate poor management, dissatisfaction with the work or dissatisfaction with how work is organised.
  • If a team has a high staff turnover and sickness absence rate, this may demonstrate a stress problem.
  • Where sickness absence coincides with periods of high work demand.
  • Where one particular department is suffering from high staff turnover. 
The Management Standards approach suggests using a survey as one (but not the only) source of information on whether work-related stress appears to be a potential problem and, if so, who is likely to be affected and how. A survey is not an essential step and for smaller organisations it would not be proportionate to use a survey, particularly where the same data can be gathered in other ways. 

The HSE has produced a survey tool, the HSE Management Standards Indicator Tool, which consists of 35 questions about working conditions known to be potential causes of work-related stress, which correspond to the six Management Standards, to be answered by employees. Their responses can then be compiled into the HSE Management Standards Analysis Tool, which produces an analysis of the scores given in responses, giving an average figure for each of the six Management Standards between 1 (poor performance) and 5 (achieving the standard). The results of the survey can be shared with the workforce, although it is the start of the risk assessment process and a broad indicator of the employer’s situation in an organisation. 

Personally, I feel the HSE Standards Indicator Tool is useful for large organisations but that a more user friendly approach may be more helpful in smaller organisations. The same questions can be badged in a more friendly and accessible manner like the following stress test tool

Step 3: evaluate the risks and develop solutions
The initial information obtained from step 2 can be explored and possible solutions considered using a representative sample of the employer’s workforce. This might be done using focus groups or discussion groups. This will enable the employer to explore the main potential sources of excessive pressure in the workplace and to consider possible solutions. The HSE recommends limiting groups to between six and ten people, especially if the topics are sensitive or complex and the employer is looking to develop solutions. The number of groups will depend on the size and structure of the organisation, available resources and, most importantly, the results of the data analysis from step 2.

Developing solutions is seen as the most difficult part of managing the causes of work-related stress. The focus or discussion groups should aim to produce a set of suggested actions aimed at addressing specific issues. Where an employer has used several focus groups, it will normally be for the project team or steering group to collect and prioritise the suggested actions. A key outcome is the creation of a preliminary action plan in relation to which the HSE suggests considering the following factors:

  • Identifying the type of intervention required:
    • primary interventions. These focus on addressing issues at source, preventing the problem from continuing and having an adverse effect on employee health. Primary interventions are the ideal type of intervention and are normally the most cost-effective;
    • secondary interventions. These focus on helping employees deal with the situation (but do not address the underlying cause of the problem); and
    • tertiary interventions. These are aimed at improving the health of employees who have been made ill by their work and if absent, help their return to work.
  • The level of the organisation at which the intervention will be aimed. This can be:
    • strategic: where the issue is having a detrimental impact on the performance of employees across the organisation;
    • macro: where an issue is affecting a particular team or group of employees; and
    • micro: where an issue is affecting an individual and where interventions can be important as they demonstrate that the employer is listening to such concerns and is taking action to address them.
  • The time period over which action will be taken:
    • action in the short term enables an intervention to be designed to give the employer the opportunity for a “quick win”;
    • action in the medium term will be required for an intervention to deliver results in months rather than days or weeks (in which case the employer should consider how employees will be kept informed of progress); and
    • action in the long term will be required where an intervention will not deliver a positive outcome for a number of months or possibly years (in which case it will be important to consider how employees will be kept informed of progress).
In its workbook on the Management Standards approach, the HSE makes some suggestions for interventions for each of the Management Standards. These are not intended to be pre-packaged, off-the-shelf interventions, but as a resource to use to when employers are considering their own interventions.

Step 4: record findings
By this stage the employer should have consulted its workforce, explored areas of concern and taken initial steps to develop some proposed solutions. The HSE suggests that the employer should produce and share an action plan. Not only will this enable the employer to record its findings, but the action plan can be used to:

  • Prioritise and set goals to work towards. Actions should be given an order of priority, be created to adequately tackle an issue, have sufficient resources allocated to achieve this and an agreed realistic timescale for completion. 
  • Demonstrate that the employer is serious and committed to addressing concerns. 
  • Review progress as measures are put in place to address areas or issues of concern.  
Step 5: monitor and review the action plan and assess effectiveness
The final step of the Management Standards approach is for the employer to continue to assess the actions it is taking to tackle any identified causes of work-related stress. This will involve:
  • Monitoring the action plan to ensure agreed actions are being implemented.
  • Evaluating work being undertaken to ensure that it is effective.
  • Deciding what further action is needed. If agreed actions are not proving to be effective, the employer should consider what alternatives could be pursued. If they are effective the employer might consider rolling them out to other parts of its organisation. 
It may also be appropriate for the employer to review its strategy following major changes (such as a restructuring or redundancy exercise) or on a periodic basis to ensure that it captures changes in its organisation. 


Where an employer conducted a survey as part of its approach, it is suggested that the employer repeat the process as part of a “continuous improvement” model, perhaps on an annual basis.


Guidance on the HSE Management Standards – reading materials

The HSE has produced:
  • How to tackle work-related stress: A guide for employers on making the Management Standards work. This is intended to support employers implementing the Management Standards approach by offering step-by-step guidance and practical examples through “What works at work?” suggestions. It emphasises the importance of effective line management and the behaviours needed to successfully manage the causes of stress at work.
  • Tackling work-related stress using the Management Standards approach: a Step-by Step Workbook.The workbook has been written with a view to assisting employers meet their legal duty to assess the risks to its employees from work-related stress and gives advice and practical guidance on how to manage work-related stress. It promotes the Management Standards approach to tackling work-related stress using a step-by-step method (including checklists) to help employers ensure they have completed each step in the process. 
  • Working together to reduce stress at work: A guide for employees. This looks at what the Management Standards should mean to employees, how they can participate in their employer’s implementation of the standards as well as what action they should take if they feel that they are becoming stressed at work.
Guidance has also been issued jointly by the HSE, CIPD and Investors in People (see CIPD: Preventing stress: Promoting positive manager behaviour). 

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has published a guide to help union safety representatives encourage employers to work with them to implement the HSE stress management standards (see TUC: Tackling Workplace Stress using the HSE Stress Management Standards: Guidance for union health and safety representatives).

ACAS has issued an advisory booklet, which expands on the HSE’s approach, focusing on providing practical examples of how employers can tackle stress in the workplace. In particular, ACAS refers to two factors that often determine the nature of the relationship between employers and employees: policies and behaviours. (Advisory booklet: Stress at work.)


You can view Anna’s video discussed ‘a lawyer’s perspective on the HSE Guidance’ here


Next week:

Next week we are going to build on the ideas already discussed with some top tips for things you can do to help with stress in the workplace.

If you have any specific questions please email:


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