Senior HR policy specialist, HR writer, author, and career development blogger
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Mental ill health: should HR rebrand the 'stress risk assessment'?

Stress risk assessments have been widely misunderstood, so is it time we rebranded the process to make it more accessible to all?

12th Mar 2020
Senior HR policy specialist, HR writer, author, and career development blogger
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Men's health exam with doctor or psychiatrist working with patient
iStock/Chinnapong

Work-related stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018/19, two frustratingly familiar statistics we’re all keen to address. HR has been advocating the use of stress risk assessments in an attempt to address mental ill health concerns, but to do this effectively, should we be exploring the possibility of broadening the scope of a stress risk assessment to cover all aspects of mental ill health?

Many of us may already advise our managers to do this. Essentially, a stress risk assessment is identifying stressors for an individual, identifying and agreeing ways to reduce, manage or eliminate these, and devising a plan of action should things get too bad for them to make rational decisions to manage the situation.

Rolling out an initiative on re-branding the stress risk assessment can be a great way to promote the tool, as well as tying it into any wellbeing strategy and/or your commitment to being more inclusive as an employer.

The Health and Safety Executive recommends using six management standards covering areas of work that impact the health and wellbeing of employees. These are:

  • Demands
  • Control
  • Support
  • Relationships
  • Role
  • Change

What if we were to apply these same standards in addition to any other relevant influences (not just stressors), to all aspects of mental ill health?

For example, someone who has just been diagnosed with OCD would not initially feel as though a stress risk assessment would help them – surely it’s just a generic tick-box exercise, they might think? We know it isn’t, and the premise of a stress risk assessment can be applied here simply as a risk assessment – without the ‘stress’ and in turn without the risk that they feel their condition isn’t being fully understood by their employer. Those who suffer from OCD may not experience stress, but may feel uncomfortable with hot-desking or last minute changes to schedules, for example.

We can also consider the sort of reasonable adjustments we can put in place for this individual, but an effective risk assessment that identifies all key factors that negatively impact the employee’s OCD (not necessarily ‘stressors’) can better inform what these reasonable adjustments can be – adjustments that are much more appropriate for the employee.

Of course, we could consider that to focus on terminology is just semantics, but this could also be a potential hindrance. When marketed as something that targets stress specifically, a stress risk assessment maybe perceived as an ineffective tool by an employee who is trying to articulate how they feel at work. The manager may offer some assurance by explaining the benefits of it despite stress not playing any part in their mental ill health, but there may still be a seed of doubt that the tool is not fit for purpose and that their condition is being misunderstood.

It also perpetuates a misconception around stress and mental illness. Stress itself is not a mental illness, but is the consequence of mental ill health. In fact, small amounts of stress can be good for us, helping us make more effective decisions and giving us a sense of accomplishment after initial struggle. Persistent or more extreme stressors, however, impact us more negatively and lead to mental ill health.

Re-branding the risk assessment

Before re-branding the risk assessment to encompass all mental ill health, it’s always good practice to develop a business case for it, not just for seeking senior leadership buy-in, but to gain employee buy-in too. They need to know that this isn’t just a fad or a type of virtue signaling, but a re-brand based on research and data, building a strong and empowering foundation for future efforts.

All staff can have a role to play in these future efforts, through a comprehensive initiative. Rolling out an initiative on re-branding the stress risk assessment can be a great way to promote the tool, as well as tying it into any wellbeing strategy and/or your commitment to being more inclusive as an employer.

Finding opportunities for employees to be involved too (workshops, feedback sessions, user-testing) from the beginning really maintains the focus to them.

Adapting your stress risk assessment to include all applicable types of mental ill health helps manage the impact the workplace and processes have on employees experiencing it. 

As with most initiatives, you’ll need to map out the relationships between:

  • Stakeholders
  • Employees
  • Legal implications
  • Health and safety departments
  • L&D (as an opportunity to further promote relevant training)
  • Communications specific to various audiences

You will also need to consider if there are changes that need to be made to the assessment itself. It’s very likely that the changes will consist of much more than re-titling the assessment, for example changes of terminology (e.g. ‘stressors’ to ‘influences’, ‘triggers’ to ‘risks’). You will also have an opportunity to expand on certain parts that you may not have been able to do with a strong focus on stress alone. For example, questions can be asked specifically around what the employee needs that relates directly to their mental health condition and how it affects specifically them (remember, everyone copes with a specific condition in different ways).

Should we wait for diagnosis before conducting a risk assessment?

Ideally, we should consider all circumstances that would benefit a risk assessment – any step we can take to help avoid detrimental impact to employee wellbeing should be taken, whether or not they have a diagnosed condition. We should also appreciate the administrative implications we’re asking of managers, however – they could potentially conduct a risk assessment for anyone and everyone, seeing as we all experience mental ill health at some point in our lives. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to have some guidance in place for both employees and their managers – transparent to both – to understand when the most appropriate time is to conduct an assessment. Usually this would be a balance of impact between doing and not doing it.  

Should you wait for absence before conducting a risk assessment?

Absolutely not. Assessing the risk of workplace impact on an individual’s mental ill health as early as possible may prevent absence occurring in the first place. This is one area the stress risk assessment can fail an employee – most cases of stress that warrant a stress risk assessment are usually resulting in absence, i.e. it’s become so bad that it’s more than likely resulted in absence and assessing the stress is one way to help them return to work.

By broadening the assessment to all mental ill health – including a condition that could result in excessive stress if not addressed early – you take a more proactive approach to prevent absence altogether.

Adapting your stress risk assessment to include all applicable types of mental ill health helps manage the impact the workplace and processes have on employees experiencing it. In this way, you’re repurposing and, in turn, rebranding it into something all-encompassing that helps employees and managers have those early conversations about their wellbeing, and also to manage or eliminate potential risks. It ensures a detailed plan is in place for when things get a bit too much.

Interested in this topic? Read Mental health crisis: time for real change.

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