Tackling rapidly rising workplace stress is a major issue for trade unions, says Northern TUC

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date: 24 February 2011

embargo: calling notice and for release

Recent TUC research has found that stress is now by far the most common health and safety problem at work. 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.

Severe stress can trigger a myriad of health problems for workers including depression, anxiety, workplace injuries and suicide, and lead to a greater risk of heart disease, and the TUC report warns that continued spending cuts, job insecurity and escalating workloads could all make the problem even worse. As well as posing an immediate and severe effect on workers, this issue also has wider-reaching consequences and hinders any economic recovery as more than one in three employers report rising sick absences. Ill or stressed workers will also be less productive, exacerbating the problem still. With the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development also blaming the recession for sky-rocketing stress levels - and warning that 'this will only increase in the near future as a consequence of the Comprehensive Spending Review', trade unions are looking for ways to help address and arrest this alarming trend, which is quickly finding its way to the top of the health and safety agenda.

The innovative Northern TUC health and wellbeing project is making serious in-roads into ensuring that health has as much emphasis as safety and has engaged with over 100 employers to help spread good practice in this area (and beyond), with a strong focus on mental health. There has been a number of Mental Health First Aid courses run for reps in regional workplaces to help identify and deal with their members and colleagues who may be suffering from stress.

As part of this agenda more than 150 people, including trade union reps, employers, regional stakeholders and health professionals will be attending the Health, Wellbeing and Trade Unions event, held at St James' Park today (Friday 25th February) to learn how they can also help make a positive contribution to reducing stress levels in the workplace. As well as practical workshops delegates will hearcontributions will come from Professor Stephen Singleton, Regional Director of Public Health, Medical Director of the North East Strategic Health Authority, and Professor Jim Edwardson from the Institute for Ageing and Health and Hugh Robertson, TUC Senior Health and Safety Policy Officer.

Kevin Rowan, Northern TUC Regional Secretary said: 'Trade unions have always been at the forefront of health and safety in the workplace, and now this project has helped to increase the emphasis placed on the stand-alone health aspect - as well as delivering tremendous benefits to workers and employers. Businesses in the region are benefitting from the advantages of a healthier workforce, improved productivity and reduced absenteeism, while workers are enjoying healthier lives and feeling more valued by their employers. In the longer term there will clearly be a positive impact on the general health of the region and reductions in the demand on the health services.

'In the current economic climate health and wellbeing in the workplace is more important than ever.'

Regional Director of Public Health, Professor Stephen Singleton said: 'The workplace is potentially a powerful place for promoting healthy lifestyle choices and ensuring the wellbeing of the population as most full-time employees spend more than a third of their waking hours at work.

'We are lucky in the North East to have a well-established partnership between the TUC and NHS to promote better health at work. This has resulted in a regional award scheme that is amongst the best in the country.'

NOTES TO EDITORS:

The event begins at 10.00am and finishes at 3.00pm in Clun 206, St James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne. If you would like a full agenda please contact mlowden@tuc.org.uk

  • Over 100 employers, supported by their trade unions, have signed up to the Better Health at Work Award through the project (including BAE Systems, South Tyneside Homes, Liebherr Cranes, the Passport Office and PPG)
  • The project has increased awareness among employers, union reps and employees of the importance of health and how this impacts upon workforce wellbeing
  • Approximately 90% of employers and employees agreed the project encouraged the company to implement health and wellbeing initiatives that otherwise wouldn't have been introduced (including cycle to work schemes, smoking cessation, healthy eating and cholesterol/prostate screening to name but a few)
  • 47% of businesses reported an increase in productivity as a result of the project
  • Around 40% employers stated that sickness absenteeism had reduced as a result of the project

*BAE Systems case Study (high res press quality photos are also available)

BAE Systems in Newcastle were one of the first employer-union partnerships to sign up to the Better Health at Work Award in 2009, following an introduction to the brand new, innovative scheme by Tom Ross, Policy Project Worker at the Northern TUC. Despite a difficult period and the global recession, the unions and company decided that it was even more appropriate to integrate health and wellbeing into their structures.

The site already had Safety Reps and a Health and Safety Committee in place, but their internal health and safety had always been focussed much more around 'safety' than health and the BHAWA gave them both the incentive and the impetus to get the health aspect caught up. Paul Lonsdale, senior Unite rep and a Health Advocate, along with Senior Occupational Health Nurse, Pam Davis, have been the main drivers for the award and associated activity, with complete backing from BAE management at the highest level, and a further 4 Health Advocates (three of whom are also union reps).

'The most important aspect of our health and wellbeing project working is the potential for prevention. We can help others to avoid ill-health in the future through education, awareness and early intervention and as they say, prevention is better than cure.'

Paul Lonsdale, senior Unite rep and lead Health Advocate.

Within the first year of implementing the scheme BAE have already achieved their Bronze and Silver Award, requiring a minimum of four health campaigns per year, which Paul, Pam and the team achieved and surpassed. Some of the successful campaigns include 'Safe in the Sun, Spring Clean your Health, Breast Awareness and last but not least, Men's Health - which has proved extremely successful and effective in the male-dominated site.

This campaign was exemplar in its extremely broad reach and approach; dealing with male cancers, blood pressure, diet and associated issues. Through a targeted campaign and excellent awareness raising, 94 people came forward to have blood samples taken and the results were extraordinary: over 80 had raised cholesterol levels, 6 of which required urgent referrals to their own GP - 58 needed dietary advice and followed up again in 6 months, and 5 PSAs were raised (prostate specific antigen levels are an indicator of prostate cancer) - all of whom were referred to their GPs for regular monitoring and thanks to this early intervention, the prognosis for the four diagnosed with prostate cancer is positive.

'Thanks to the project, there is a marked difference in people's attitude to both occupational and personal health in BAE. Staff members now come and ask me about tests instead of me having to chase them - and better still, they know why they're asking. Going for the BHAWAs has broadened our horizons and encouraged us to do things we wouldn't have as well as the project giving Occupational Health a 'shop-window' and increasing its profile dramatically.'

A great deal of this campaign's success was down to how Paul, Pam and the other HAs engaged with their colleagues, employing very effective communication in various forms, including emails, posters, walk-abouts, discussions, meet and greets, hand delivery of the Haynes Men's health workshop manual and drop-in clinics, with follow-up appointments made with every result to ensure people weren't just given their results but also ways to change them for the better. And they employ similar techniques for their other areas of work, too - planning and making the issues relevant to the 500 employees on site.

Alcohol Awareness sessions are held around the Christmas party season, but use engaging methods like asking participants to wear 'beer goggles' (goggles that simulate the effects of consuming several alcoholic beverages) and perform simple tasks like walking in a straight line. This year they will also be borrowing a drink driving simulator so that employees can experience the dangers of drink driving. And after the excesses of the festive season Pam runs a Slimming Club for those who feel they've over-indulged, and offers weight loss/management advice and encouragement, including taste tests for healthy meals and their recipes.

The project's next challenge is to build on its accomplishments so far and complete the Better Health at Work Award by achieving the Gold Standard. The Gold award requires the workplace to conduct an ongoing year-long campaign in a targeted area and to promote the BHAWA and their work externally, demonstrating the benefits to fellow employers. True to form, they're already working on this. But, certificates aside, the true measure of success for this project is the genuine and sustained commitment to employees' health, which is reflected in the collective trade union, staff and management buy-in, so much so that it's almost written into workplace policy and now has a regular monthly reporting slot into the Safety Committee.

'The better health at work scheme is giving BAE Systems employees a great framework to use to support their health and wellbeing. The engagement we are seeing is widespread and delivering improvements and awareness in all areas. The team of advocates are very proactive, and working alongside the occupational health team they keep coming up with fresh ideas to take the scheme forward and involve more people on site'

Paul Hagan MED Manager & Head of SHE (Newcastle)

- Northern TUC press releases www.tuc.org.uk/northern national releases www.tuc.org.uk and www.twitter.com/tucnews

- Register for the TUC's press extranet: a service exclusive to journalists wanting to access pre-embargo releases and reports www.tuc.org.uk/pressextranet

- For TUC advice and information on the world of work www.workSMART.org.uk

Media contacts:

Kevin Rowan, Northern TUC Regional Secretary T: 0191 227 5565; M: 07766250074; E: krowan@tuc.org.uk

Tom Ross, Health for All Project Worker T:0191 227 5555 M:07919174202 E: tross@tuc.org.uk

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