Employers must recognise that work-related stress is a major health and safety risk and they have a duty to manage and eliminate the risk as they have with any other hazard

This was the clear message from delegates at the 9th Annual NIPSA Health and Safety Conference on 23 October 2018 in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast. Over 130 delegates registered for the event making it the largest health and safety conference we have had. The theme of the conference was ‘Say NO to Stress – Challenging the Employer’s Agenda.

Opening the Conference, NIPSA General Secretary, Alison Millar said:

“It is vital that we maintain our challenge to all Employers were we have members. Just 4 weeks ago we had the usual media frenzy over the NICS Sick Absence – with the highest reason for absence being – stress, psychiatric injury and depression. This is not unique to the NICS – it remains the highest level of sick absence across our health service, our education sector, local government to name but a few. There is obviously something that is making our members sick – we must ensure we force the employers to address the causes of mental health – not just sending people to counselling – and a sticking plaster approach to mental health. Let us make 2018/19 the year when across the public services we force the employers to make a real difference in the workplace and address this scourge so that there are real and meaningful policies and practices in place at all levels so that members feel they can openly ask for help to address and protect their own mental health.”

She went on to say:

“I accept this is not an easy issue to address – however we have no option – and neither do the employers – the cost to an individual is immense and the employers tell us how much it costs in lost days at work – we know our members do not want to be sick – they want to be in work doing the vital public service they are employed to deliver.”

Alison praised the sterling work of the Health and Safety Committee and thanked workplace health and safety reps for the very hard work they do on our members’ behalf.

We were delighted to welcome Martina McIlkenny from PIPs as one of our Keynote Speakers. Martina delivered a presentation on Mental Health in the workplace. She said: “Stress management in the work place can be difficult in itself but if you have a good line manager who has the skills to detect when things are getting on top of you would make all the difference. A safe place within work to go when needed would help employees to get through if having a tough day.”

Her PowerPoint (available here) raised awareness on how to spot the signs of someone not coping with stress in the workplace. It showed what to do and say and more importantly what not to do.

Martina concluded by saying:

“Never be afraid to ask someone are you ok. As this question could help save a life and help someone feel listened to. “

Patrick Anderson from Aware NI gave an inspirational talk on mental health and the voice within. He said:

“As humans we are social beings, and as such we are often very focused on what others think of us and we can be very critical of ourselves. Quite often the things we assume others think about us are in fact a projection of our own insecurities and fears. It is important to understand that these thoughts aren’t always truthful and being able to recognise them as just bad thoughts that pop into our head from time to time, or sometimes more often, can help us to step around them and avoid the stress, anxiety, worry, insecurity and fear they may cause us.” Click here for a full copy of Patrick’s speech.

Our third Keynote Speaker was John McShane from McCartan, Turkington, Breen Solicitors. John addressed the following types of claims:

1. Stress at Work; and

2. Harassment.

It was emphasised that for a stress at work claim to be successful the requirement for foreseeability of psychiatric injury must be satisfied. In terms of harassment serious misconduct must be established. It was explained that both these types of cases are difficult but offered a remedy of financial compensation for personal injury caused. Click here for a copy of his presentation.

The practical session in the afternoon was delivered by Janet Heath and Claire Kelly from the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI).

The HSENI presentation focused on the use of preventative measures to control the risks associated with work related stress. HSENI promote the HSE Management Standards Approach as a tool to assist employers. The Management Standards focus on primary interventions aimed at eliminating or modifying workplace stressors to reduce their negative impact on all individuals in the organisation. The Standards are a set of conditions that if managed correctly in organisations can reflect high levels of health, well-being and organisational performance, however if not managed properly, can lead to excessive pressures in the workplace. HSENI recommend employers develop strategies that tackle work related stressors at an organisational level.

The Management Standards approach demonstrates good practice through a simplified step by step risk assessment approach. It allows organisations to assess their current situation using surveys and other techniques and promotes active discussion and working in partnership with employees to help decide on practical improvements that can be made in the workplace. Click here for a copy of the workshop presentation.