Is this a trend or what â€” two meetings at the end of April focus on what Europeans call "social risks" and their effect on job health and safety.
"The Way We Work and Its Impact on Our Health" is the title of a two-day forum in Los Angeles to be held April 22-23. Employers, workers, labor groups, health care providers and policy makers will focus on how to reduce damage wrought by work-related stress.
A week later, the effects of long work hours (fatigue, stress, health ills and safety risks) on workers, their families and their communities will be examined at a national conference in Baltimore. The two-day meeting (April 29-30) aims to develop an agenda for research.
In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we take a look at the ubiquitous topic of job stress (the one EHS issue everyone relates to), and strategies and policies that could land on your desk one day, based on laws and initiatives emerging around the globe.
Maybe you think the conferences are all talk and stress as a serious workplace issue will never amount to much here. We asked EHS pros why European regulators are doing more in this area than the U.S. Plus, in the land of the Lord of the Rings, New Zealand recently enacted a law holding employers culpable for employee stress.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the onus remains on individuals to manage their own stress, not the employer.
"If you admit to needing stress reduction programs you admit that stress is a workplace hazard and is therefore ripe for workers' comp and comp rip-offs," says Gary Rosenblum, a risk manager for a California municipality.
"Europeans have been far more employee-driven, just look at their shorter work week. If we begin to see job stress-related litigation and legislation coming out of Europe, it will likely make its way to the U.S.," says Mark Hansen, director, risk control, Oil & Gas, The St. Paul.
"We tend to have a more frontier mindset in the U.S.," says Craig Schroll, owner of the consulting firm Firecon. "Calling stress a work-related injury/illness and making it compensable is a slippery slope. I fear it is only a matter of time though before this arrives on our shores in a larger way."
OK, the lines are drawn in the U.S. when it comes to employers' (and regulators') responsibilities for stress at work. Polls show most employees complain about it, but only researchers like NIOSH chief Dr. John Howard, psychologists, and wellness advocates talk about trying to reduce it. Regulators such as OSHA are mum. OSHA's Web site features an "A to Z" index of more than 350 health and safety topics â€” and you'll find nothing on stress.
But in our interconnected global economy, how long will cultural defenses endure? Is it only a matter of time before acceptance of stress as a recognized work-related illness "arrives on our shores in a larger way"?
Regulators in the United Kingdom aren't silent on stress.
A set of draft guidelines for reducing stress at work is now being piloted by the U.K.'s Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Businesses using the guidelines will report on how useful they are and feedback will lead to a second draft. Standards in the document cover job demands, how much say workers have, systems to cope with concerns, communicating a clear message of individuals' place in the organization, and communicating the reasons for change and the impact on jobs.
Here's the kicker: A firm will have met the standard set by the HSE if at least 85 percent of employees say they can cope and are not excessively stressed. Plus, firms must have a system for dealing with problems, and satisfy the communication requirements.
Are 85 percent of your employees stress-free?
The first step is to find out how employees feel their company is handling stress, and from there learn what the causes of stress are, according to the HSE guidelines. Then employees can "suggest targeted actions," according to the document.
In part, the U.K. might be responding to research on the bottom line damage caused by job stress. Sixty-five percent of senior managers reported employees complaining of stress, according to a survey by the British business information company Croner. And 56 percent said stress was causing drops in productivity.
"It is a known fact today that emerging illnesses such as stress, depression, anxiety, violence at work, harassment and intimidation are responsible for 18 percent of all problems associated with health at work, with a quarter of them resulting in two weeks or more absence from work," the European Union reported in its 2002-2006 Strategy for Safety and Health at Work.
European regulators are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in producing strategic policies that acknowledge safety and health issues as economic "performance factors." They are seen as key elements promoting EU competitiveness and "quality management."
The exact relationship between health at work and competitiveness is more complex than the simple matter of compliance costs, states the EU strategy. "Non-quality of work is expressed in a loss of productive capacity â€” 500 million working days lost in 1999 as a result of accidents or health problems, and compensatory payments and benefits, reports the EU.
"Almost 350,000 people have been forced to change jobs or their place of work or to reduce their working time, and nearly 300,000 have varying degrees of permanent disability, of whom 15,000 are entirely excluded from the world of work. Over and above these human tragedies, this is a waste of resources," states the report.
Europe's comprehensive strategy for ensuring workplace safety and health is another factor behind the attention given to stress and other so-called psycho-social issues. It's a holistic approach that promotes "well-being at work," a term first coined by the International Labor Organization in 1989.
"Well-being at work" is not something that can be measured by an absence of accidents or occupational illnesses, states the EU strategy. It encompasses physical, moral and social well-being, with particular attention to social risks. (Europeans talk much more about "risk" and a "culture of risk prevention," as opposed to the U.S. focus on "safety" and "hazards." You can argue that the language of "risk" resonates more with business execs.)
Social risks are on the rise as daily work is reorganized in ways that put more of an obligation on individuals to achieve fixed results in a fixed amount of time, according to the EU paper.
Or as a Wonder Bread deliveryman in New Jersey was overheard saying at a recent party: "Yeah, those UPS guys work hard. But they don't have to meet delivery gate closings. If I don't get my bread to supermarkets by 10 o'clock or whenever their receiving closes, I'm screwed. So I'm working 13-hour days and eating lunch in the truck. We've got 11 drivers covering routes that we used to have 30 guys on."
These "obligations" are having a "profound effect on problems associated with health at work," states the EU strategy. Complaints are twice as frequent in education and health and social services, states the paper. "They are linked less to exposure to a specific risk than to a whole set of factors, such as work organization, working time arrangements, hierarchical relations, and transport-related fatigue," according to the EU strategy assessment. (Somewhere, the Wonder Bread man is nodding.)
"IT'S ABOUT TIME"
It's that kind of thinking and research that led to amendments to New Zealand's Health and Safety Act making employers explicitly liable for hazardous stress and fatigue experienced at work by their staff. The law went into effect in May, 2003.
The new law makes employers liable for stress-related problems to the tune of $500,000 if they are made worse by work, but it also puts the onus on employees to speak up.
Public Services Association (PSA) organizer Barry Jones said in a New Zealand newspaper report that the amendment was long overdue. "It's about time that (stress and fatigue) was recognized and employers need to understand that they are liable at the end of the day and they need to be aware of it." Until the law was enacted, many people had suffered silently and employers had largely ignored problems, Jones said.
Changes to the New Zealand law aim to ensure that employers and employees both take responsibility for reducing work-related stress and creating healthier organizational climates. According to one industrial psychologist, money, more than moral obligations, is behind the new requirements.
The fact that stress and fatigue are now recognized as workplace hazards reflects the amount of money it could cost a company, he said in a newspaper account. "Managers keep working the machines instead of maintaining them."
Some New Zealand companies are complying with new rules by building on existing employee assistance programs. Employee committees are meeting with management to flag possible stress issues, and training is being presented in stress awareness and management techniques.
Business New Zealand Executive Director Anne Knowles told a reporter that her fear of a rash of stress claims has not developed â€” yet â€” although stress has been raised more in personal grievance cases as an "add-on."
WILL DOLLARS BE THE DRIVER?
Here in the U.S., it could also be the bottom line â€” specifically rising health care costs â€” that prompts firms to take a harder look at managing job-related stress.
Health care costs are increasing 14 percent per year, consuming corporate revenues and family incomes, according to an article in Absolute Advantage, a workplace wellness magazine. Yet companies assume they have no ability to impact the skyrocketing costs, writes the author, Rick Bellingham, an executive coaching consultant.
"It's impossible for an organization to sustain high performance and profitability with a sick, tired and burned-out workforce," Bellingham says.
But even experts like Bellingham believe it could take decades for attitudes in the U.S. to change.
Right now many companies, especially small to mid-size firms, have absolutely no interest in employee health promotion, says Dr. Steven Aldana in an interview published by the Wellness Councils of America. They are just trying to survive. In the next 10 to 20 years he expects that to change. Costs will force firms to give employees more attention than simply "using 'em up, burning 'em up, retiring 'em out and moving them on," he says.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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