Part 1: Tackling stress, bullying and harassment using health and safety

Read Time 5 mins | Friday 2 December, 12:25

Jon Benson (he/him) has over ten years’ experience in the higher and secondary education sectors as a union lay officer and official. Jon has a strong interest in health and safety, with additional union experience in organising, bargaining, negotiations and change management.

Speak to almost any union representative about top issues affecting members, workplace stress will be up there. In fact this is backed up by the biennial TUC Safety Reps survey (page 7) that flags stress as a recurring top issue. Stress can mean a lot of different things to individuals and a good reference point is the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) excellently researched Management Standards that categorise six areas of work – demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. In this article I explore how bullying and harassment are directly linked to stress and summarise possible approaches for using health and safety law to tackle workplace stress effectively.

Bullying and harassment can take many forms and we explore this in more detail but fundamentally it is where there is an abuse of power, often with a pattern of behaviours from perpetrators. Look again at the Management Standards through a lens of bullying and harassment and it’s quick to see that someone with a high workload, little flexibility in their work, lack of manager support, strained relationships, a lack of understanding of the purpose of the role and no say in future change will be made to feel stressed by their work and feel bullied. Sometimes this can be individual and dealt with as a piece of casework. 

But what about when several members in a workplace experience this collectively? What if members are too scared to speak out, let alone raise a grievance? How do you gather evidence for a collective grievance that won’t be challenged as ‘robust management’ by an employer? How do we achieve change for the better instead of employers treating symptoms with expensive wellbeing gimmicks that place blame on individuals for not being resilient enough? That’s where safety inspections come in.

Using safety inspections to shine a light on workplace environments

Safety inspections are typically perceived by safety reps and employers as predominantly an exercise to highlight physical workplace hazards and scrutinise the wider management of health and safety – and these are very important. But remember, stress is also a workplace hazard and in 2021/22 a whopping 914,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in 17 million working days lost (page 4).

As a Safety Rep myself, I’ve adapted and reflected on my approaches with safety inspections to give stress the attention that it deserves, alongside your ‘traditional’ hazards like fire safety and trips, slips and falls. Here’s what I’ve learnt when preparing a safety inspection after notifying the employer.

1. Notify the workers of the inspection and include details for optional drop-ins to speak with inspectors in private and include a link to a stress survey

Safety Reps have the right to inspect a workplace area – this includes physical walk-throughs, speaking with workers (individually and collectively) and surveys. Crucially, there’s the right to notify workers of an inspection and in most cases this is by email and the employer should provide the facility for this. It’s a quick and easy way to communicate with members and non-members to tell them about the upcoming inspection, provide details on how to speak with the inspectors in private and to circulate a stress survey. It’s usually good to keep the survey open for about ten days and schedule the inspection at the midpoint.

2. Design an effective stress survey

UWU branches can access our off-the-shelf survey built using Google Forms that can be further customised. Our survey includes:

  • HSE Management Standards Indicator Tool – this isn’t perfect, but the questions are based on HSE research that can be quickly analysed by inputting the numerical scores for at least ten respondents using the analysis tool. The tool instantly produces graphs, detailed data and highlights red flag areas that can be added to your final inspection report.
  • Free text feedback – asking the respondent to reflect on their answers to the Management Standards and to contribute any positive and constructive ideas that will be included in the final report. Be clear that we’re not looking for a list of complaints nor outing individual behaviours. You’ll still need to check and potentially redact or paraphrase some responses. Generally if the workers are coming up with ideas they will be more likely to support them if management later implements them.
  • Optional equality questions so that we can analyse responses against the protected characteristics from the Equality Act 2010.
  • Women’s health and safety – period dignity, standard of toilet facilities, menopause adjustments. This is an area of health and safety that all too often can be overlooked, assumed to be fine or just not talked about in the workplace. A survey creates a confidential space and valuable data to bargain around provision of better welfare facilities (eg. provision of period products and sanitary bins in all toilets) and policies (eg. menopause).
  • Other work specific questions – for example, some trade union workers will have to work remotely, attend employer premises and drive for work and this is where you can get insights benchmarked against an employer’s policy and recommended minimums by the HSE.

Good preparation for a safety inspection will make the actual inspection run smoothly and help you have a plan for the report write up and follow up bargaining. In part two, I will look beyond the actual inspection and explore how to write up your findings and develop tactics to win.