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FERNHURST, England-British employers increasingly are recognizing stress as an occupational hazard and taking steps to help employees and protect the company from the risk of lawsuits.

Fernhurst-based Zeneca Agrochemicals, a unit of the international chemical company Zeneca P.L.C, formulated a workplace stress-management program last year. According to Dr. Clive Campbell, the unit's occupational physician, the company had been "aware of the importance of dealing with workplace stress for some time."

A company survey found that 19% of responding employees expressed some form of depression or anxiety. Since then, the company has introduced workplace counselors and implemented stress-awareness training, said Dr. Campbell.

The company decided to turn its stress management awareness into an actual program after indications that its insurance company was becoming more concerned with occupational stress, said Dr. Campbell.

"We received a general memo saying what we should and shouldn't do about getting sued," he said.

Dr. Campbell thinks a high-profile court case in which a social worker successfully sued his employer for compensation as a result of work-related stress (BI, Dec. 5, 1994), as well as increased awareness of stress, had prompted the insurer's concern.

Statutory liability for workplace stress, both civil and criminal, has increased over past few years with the Management of Health and Safety at Work regulations and legislation on unfair dismissal and discrimination.

Partly as a result of the insurer's interest, Dr. Campbell received full management cooperation for implementing a stress program. The program is, however, confined to the U.K. subsidiary, as continental Europeans "don't perceive stress to be a problem" and its U.S.-based company "talks about mental illness, not stress," explained Dr. Campbell.

The company runs two programs, one aimed at factory workers and operators and the other at executives. Overall, the programs include instructional sessions and written materials that attempt to teach employees how to recognize stress and how it is prevented and treated. Counseling is offered to all employees, whether the cause of the stress is work-related or personal, such as bereavement or financial or health problems.

Under the program, managers are responsible for good communication, proper training and development of staff, effective time management and the ability to detect early signs of stress.

The employee's role is to help in early detection of stress in colleagues and to provide support, discuss stress-related issues with managers or other staff and to recognize the employee's own job-training needs.

Occupational health staff members are responsible for providing expert advice on stress management and referrals to specialized agencies if required.

Human resource staff members, meanwhile, are responsible for appropriate job selection with input from the occupational health staff, and provision of training and support.

As a result of the company's measures, "a lot of people have felt able to talk over issues, and a lot of people have benefited substantially," said Dr. Campbell.

Also, the introduction of stress training throughout the company "sent out a very important message that we are interested in everyone and stress was not deemed as just a province of senior management," he noted.

Dr. Campbell thinks stress is increasing as the pace of life, in and out of work, becomes faster. As a result, more companies are facing the fact that some of their employees will suffer stress at one time or another, whether work-related or not.

"A lot of companies, particularly big companies, are developing stress policies to manage stress," he said.