Work/life balance has been a buzzword for many years and we all know we should try to find the right balance. But how often do we consider it a health and safety issue? We may think about people being around late or early on site and those left in the building long after everyone else has gone home, but do we think about the real psychological damage that work-related stress brings? I don’t think we do.

Hand squeezing a red stress-relief ball

I interviewed a group last week and two said they worked in the sales and contracting side of the business so they often were the last to leave the site at night and found the car park lacked lighting in some pedestrian areas. So we discussed this obvious H&S issue, then suddenly one of the other workers asked their colleague “do you work shifts then? If not, then why do you leave so late every night?”

This began an interesting conversation about the pressure placed on some employees to win work and manage projects on unrealistic timeframes. This caused them to feel under constant pressure in an area of the business not usually associated with health and safety issues.

This is an area I have a lot of experience in and it’s been a focus for the HSE risk assessment for some time now. But all too often I visit sites and nothing has been done to check if people suffer from or are at risk of suffering from stress, and this is such a reactive view to take. If people feel stressed they’re expected to come forward and HR will deal with it but often it’s dealt with individually as a one-off issue when it likely affects others too.

Do you think stress is a health & safety issue?

Do you take a proactive approach or do you let people fall off the perch and take long-term sick leave, hoping they can cope when they get back? Coping and resilience coaching has been rolled out in many organisations as a way of reducing people’s susceptibility to stress, but it’s often the only action taken with little focus on prevention.

Would you consider sending people to a gym to build up their muscles to make them resilient to back strain as a sensible option for dealing with moving and handling safety issues? Yet that’s what we say to people: “we’ll help you learn to cope… we won’t reduce the amount of stress we cause but we’ll pay for a course so you can deal with it better!”

Why do we have this approach? I think it’s because the real issues for people feeling stressed are exacerbated by poor management. Lack of communication and feedback makes people feel they can’t keep control of their work and so it all feels too much. But with good effective communication and feedback with managers, employees are able to keep control of workloads and plan how to deal with it. Feedback lets people know they’re on the right lines and feel more confident that they’re achieving results. This leads to more productive use of time and a calmer mind to think things through properly.

The headless chicken or fire-fighter approach to any job may look busy and important but it’s very stressful for colleagues because they have no idea when things will be done or how their work will be affected by it. That promotes feelings of being out of control – a key contributor to feeling stressed.

We all recognise the potential safety implications for people working under pressure, it forces them to take risky shortcuts. So let’s also think about the safety of our colleagues in other areas of the business under similar pressures who aren’t considered in the same way.