- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

LONDON — Stress at work is now officially a hazard in Britain.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor government last week introduced a tough new code of standards to deal with the problem.

In the nation’s ever-growing “compensation culture,” the risks of letting employees get too frazzled are evident: $135,000 here for a stressed-out mathematics teacher, $740,000 there for a depressed prison worker, $230,000 for an ordnance worker who suffered post-traumatic stress after he breathed in toxic fumes.

Mr. Blair’s government is cracking down on all kinds of stress at work through a set of standards issued by its Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that could make it even easier for employees to sue their bosses for working them too hard or bullying them.

The code of six standards, which includes reducing job demands, increasing support and giving employees more control over their jobs, is voluntary — but it gives workers a powerful new tool with which to crack down on their employers.

“You will see many more employees and trades unions blowing the whistle on stress,” said Alan Bradshaw, director of In Equilibrium, a stress-management consultant.

“That will mean the HSE will have to act by imposing enforcement orders and improving notices,” he said. “The ballgame is changing, as far as stress in the workplace is concerned.”

The standards are intended to be guidelines to help employers adhere to 1974 and 1999 laws that aim to reduce stress at work.

Certainly, there is plenty of stress, according to the government’s figures, which show it to be the largest cause of work days lost through injury or sickness — more than 13 million a year, at a cost of $6.85 billion annually.

The health agency says more than a half-million workers have experienced stress because of their jobs.

Some, such as Jacqui Beart and Alan Barber, have gone after compensation for their stress and forced their bosses to shell out big bucks.

Ms. Beart, an executive officer at an English prison, won $740,000 earlier this year because she became depressed after a fight with her manager. Math teacher Mr. Barber was awarded $135,000 by Britain’s House of Lords after overwork and “bullying” by his superiors left him stressed.

But such cases have been difficult to prove. Now, the new rules will help workers.

“We have never had specific standards before,” Mr. Bradshaw said, “and it will make it harder for companies to defend their actions if they have not complied with the standards.”

A health agency spokesman conceded that unions and angry workers could use the new standards to take their employers, in both the public and private sectors, to court.

“As we progress with this, it does raise the game,” the HSE spokesman said. “Our inspectors are becoming more and more aware of the issue of stress in the workplace.”

Businesses are faced with what has been described as a “stress epidemic” in a country with the longest workdays in Europe.

“We are highly competitive, and people are working longer hours, have fewer breaks and are generally under more pressure,” said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at England’s University of Lancaster.

Mr. Cooper attributed a large part of the problem of work-related stress to Britain’s backbreaking efforts to keep up with the Joneses — or, in this case, the Americans.

“The U.S. has always had long hours, and jobs have always been unstable,” he said. “But work has changed in the UK over the past 12 to 15 years. We’ve become very Americanized.”

Some employers are putting a brave face on the new rules.

“This is an authoritative set of principles,” said Janet Asherson, spokeswoman for the Confederation of British Industry, who views it as “a framework to help employers and employees tackle stress at work.”

Oil giant Shell PLC said, “The health and safety of our employees is a priority, and we welcome the HSE standards.”

Some smaller companies already have acted.

“We employ mainly creative people who can be prone to putting in too many hours. Our work environment is designed to be calming to help beat stress,” said Daphne Morrison, who runs a mail-order art-publishing business with partner Darrell Wilson in Cardiff, Wales. It has six employees.

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