Can a gym membership really tackle workplace mental ill health?

PART 1: Toby Thorp explains how the cheapest option, employee feedback, is the most effective

Back in the previous decade, the City of London took part in a pilot programme from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) looking at stress – particularly within the Financial Services as this was a group recognised as being in the top 5 sectors for poor performance and absence in this field.

The programme evolved over several years and culminated in the production of HSE’s Management Standards and a project specifically assessing compliance of businesses against those standards – principally the undertaking of a stress risk assessment.

Whilst the HSE has long since moved away from possible enforcement in this area, the Management Standards remain and are still regarded as very useful guidance for addressing stress in the workplace.

I was personally involved in assessing compliance against those Standards and this is part one of a two part blog where I can share some of the findings from our project – particularly those common threads that appeared to exist across organisations performing strongly or poorly.

Firstly, no-one we visited or spoke to was using the HSE’s stress toolkit – the questionnaire and analysis package they provided to enable a business to be self-critical.  However, the Management Standards never prescribed its use and, indeed, for some organisations it was likely too blunt an instrument.  Nonetheless, the primary feature of that tool was to allow an organisation to understand its strengths and weaknesses and any organisation that wishes to claim that they are performing well in controlling stress must go through a detailed self-analysis process that provides them with that information.

Secondly, there was all too often a tendency, in putting together a stress risk assessment, for this to be devolved to one individual, often a health & safety manager.  This is not a criticism per se but often led to an assessment that merely reflected upon what the organisation already did, without necessarily having information about how the organisation was actually performing.   Some of the individuals would arguably at least have access to statistics about the number of people self-reporting or ‘diagnosed’ with stress, possibly even some feedback from those cases, but anyone working in the field of wellbeing immediately understands that this is always likely to be an underestimate.

Consequently, the poorer performers were largely guilty of making decisions concerning stress control measures without knowledge of what their stress problems truly were – the stressors for the organisation – be they concerning demands, control, relationships, support etc.

Worse still, stress risk assessments would often focus on the generic control measures that were in place to deal with those identified or identifying as already being ‘stressed’ e.g. occupational health provision and return to work processes.  Simply looking at your existing cases and how you can help them back to health rather ignores the duty to prevent its occurrence in the first instance.  The HSE and I would take a dim view of that approach if the result was a broken leg or other life changing injury.

I took to describing such control measures as being tertiary – essential for an organisation looking to perform well but fundamentally missing the point about prevention.  Much like other health & safety risks, the Management Standards approach is about identifying the hazards that exist in your organisation that lead to the result of stress i.e. the day to day pressures that employees may face.  The control measures you implement should then be around eliminating, removing or reducing those pressures.

Most organisations will be quick to point out that they have Employee Assistance Programmes, gym membership, staff canteens, flexible working etc. and, again, this isn’t a criticism but I would regard all these as being secondary control measures.  They are broad range matters that, on the face of it, should be welcomed by employees.   However, those controls arguably only increase the ability of an individual to cope – they do not address the underlying pressures in the organisation and so their effect may be surprisingly limited.

So my final point is that the biggest failure I saw being made was for management to assume they knew best what it is that their employees want – implementing specific and non-specific control measures based on their beliefs of organisational performance rather than data and employee feedback.

It thus follows that the best thing that senior management can do is to talk and engage to their staff in a meaningful way, using the results to inform future decisions and feeding back to staff on those decisions – repeating the process as often as is reasonable.

In Part 2 Toby provides working examples on how City businesses were able to put this into practice

Other articles written by Toby Thorp:


Toby Thorp

Environmental Health Officer, Markets & Consumer Protection at the City of London