Why every week should be European Week of Safety and Health


19 / 10 / 2015 9am

Work related stress is the theme of the coming European Week for Safety and Health (19-25 October 2015), Kim Sunley Staff Side Chair of the NHS Staff Council’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Group (HSWPG) looks at some of the challenges facing health care workplaces and the importance of partnership working to address this agenda.

European Health and Safety Week takes place in October each year and is designed to raise awareness of health and safety and is aimed at people in organisations, companies and workplaces of all sizes and sectors. The focus this year is on raising awareness of managing stress and psychosocial risks at work.

Earlier this month, we heard from the CIPDs annual absence survey of an increase in stress related absence in the public sector, with volume of work and management style being the top contributors to work related stress.  Furthermore, we discovered that presenteeism continues to be a significant issue in UK workplaces, with levels not falling under 30 per cent since 2015.  The main causes of presenteeism were cited as long working hours and excessive job demands.

These findings will undoubtedly be echoed in many NHS workplaces, with staff surveys and union reports, including the RCNs Beyond Breaking Point, also saying the same thing.  Staff are doing more, with less; coming in when they are unwell not to let their colleagues down and unsurprisingly going off with stress or worse, completely burn out.

So why does this matter?

We all need pressure, achievable deadlines, agreed objectives in a busy, bustling work environment to thrive.  Like the disused car sitting in the driveway, lack of pressure and under use of skills can lead to rust out...not something our health care workforce are experiencing at the moment but when that pressure becomes excessive and individuals don’t have the resources and support to manage it – stress raises its ugly head.  Unfortunately, stress is a hackneyed term but behind the casual use of the word, there are employees suffering from the serious physical and psychological manifestations of stress.

A workplace without stress may seem like a utopian idea, conversely a workplace with high levels of stress is dysfunctional and, I would argue, failing both staff and patients.  The evidence correlating healthy workplaces, with happy staff, with improved patient outcomes is increasing.  Healthy workplaces find it easier to retain and recruit staff and with shortages of many healthcare professionals and restrictions on agency spend, this is vital. 

What can we do about it?

Undoubtedly it is a difficult time for the NHS and its workforce.  With managers under extreme pressure, finding time to identify and address the causes of work related stress can be a challenge. But taking time out and working in partnership with staff side representatives to speak to staff, find out what the issues are and put in place actions to reduce the risk of stress can reap the benefits identified above, as well as supporting compliance.  

HSWPG has developed practical guidance to support the process of identifying and addressing the causes of work related stress using the Health and Safety Executive's framework.  Research, carried out by Zeal solutions and summarised in the guidance, identifies good practice actions and cost neutral solutions to prevent work related stress.  Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference, for example letting staff know in advance of a planned change of use of a room on the ward and getting their views.


No matter what your opinion is on continued EU membership, European week for safety and health should be every week.  Strategies to reduce and manage work related stress and promote mental health need to be embedded and continuously reviewed and not a one off exercise accompanied by a policy that sits on the shelf.  HSWPG guidance can support organisations work in partnership to implement this agenda and ultimately improve the experience of staff and patients.

Further information

HSWPGs Guidance on the Prevention and Management of Stress at Work 
Health & Safety Executive information on stress  
European Week of Safety and Health campaign resources 

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