Work Positive Project 2005-2007

Joint HSA/HSENI Initiative

This specific one-off Work Positive project was a joint cross-border initiative by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA, Republic of Ireland) and the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) to reduce work-related stress.

Welcome & Introduction

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and the Health & Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) in conjunction with six organisations in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have jointly piloted the Work Positive resource pack.  This is a stress audit tool which can be used to assist organisations in meeting the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive‘s (HSE UK) Management Standards for Work-Related Stress. 

This webpage aims to assist organisations wishing to address work-related stress.  The HSA and HSENI have identified work-related stress as a priority topic and would ask you to consider implementing the Management Standards, which are embedded in the Work Positive tool, in your organisation.

By fully implementing the Management Standards you will be able to demonstrate that you have addressed this difficult issue in your work place.

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Work Positive is a comprehensive risk management process that incorporates a risk assessment covering the major causal factors associated with workplace stress.  It was originally developed by Health Scotland and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA, Ireland) to help organisations identify the potential causes of stress at work in line with requirements under the requirement to prevent accidents and illness at work under the Health, Safety and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (then the 1989 Act)  and the Management of Health and Safety at Work (NI) Regulations 2000. 

Work Positive was launched in 2002 and a revised edition again in May 2005 and is the only state sponsored stress audit tool of its kind available across Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.  It is based on the work of a number of bodies and reflects the HSA‘s prevention approach and emphasis on the risk assessment process and HSENI‘s  development of Management Standards, against which organisations can measure their performance in managing the main causal factors for workplace stress and put in place procedures and system changes as required, to improve organisational culture to promote well-being.

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Each year as many as 40,000 people in Northern Ireland suffer from work-related ill health and it is estimated that £330 million per year is lost by businesses due to ill-health.  It is estimated that at any one point in time as many as 1 in 6 people in Northern Ireland have been diagnosed with a condition such as depression or anxiety.

The Central Statistics Office, Ireland reports that 13,000 people in the Republic of Ireland suffer from stress, depression and anxiety.  Also, the Department of Social and Family Affairs states that 1.7% of all occupational injury benefit claims allowed in the Republic of Ireland in 2006 related to stress.

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What does the HSENI and HSA expect employers to do?

HSENI and HSA expect every employer to conduct risk assessments for health and safety hazards, including work-related stress.  A five step approach to risk assessment is recommended.

  1. Identify the hazards
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how.
  3. Evaluate the risk and decide what needs to be done.
  4. Record your findings.
  5. Monitor and review.

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What are the HSE Management Standards?

The HSE developed Management Standards for work-related stress.  These reflect the six key aspects of work which have been identified internationally, through valid and reliable research, as causal factors where people have become affected by work related stress..  These aspects of work, if not properly managed, have been found in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, not always predictable, to have repercussions for employee mental and physical well being. 

As we cannot predict individual responses to stimuli and situations, and as we cannot fully control the workplace and the cultures we create, we must try to ensure that the 6 areas the Management Standards are concerned with are reasonably managed and monitored.

These 6 areas are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.  This is based on models well established in the psychological literature and on on-going research and surveys carried out internationally.

The HSE, having identified these six factors as the primary precursors to stress, joined with the HSA, who had already developed and piloted Work Positive, an audit tool and advisory material for industry, to enable employers to more easily assess the risks associated with workplace stress and put in place systems to reduce it over time, within a systematized, risk reduction framework.

HSE also identified, through consultation within the UK, states to be achieved associated with each key factor in order to develop a standard to encourage good management practice.  Full detail on implementing the management standards can be viewed at HSEs website

The aim is to assess where your organization is performing in relation to current good practice.  You should then set realistic goals to prioritise areas for growth and improve current performance.

Work Positive also considers issues relating to reward and contribution and indicators of pressure within a workforce.

chart type image  work positive

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How to implement this Work Positive Programme in your workplace

The process of implementing and embedding these good management standard practices into your organisation involves several stages.

Before you start

Commitment is required from senior management, from staff and from their representatives.  The success of the initiative is based on having active engagement and briefing staff beforehand often helps.

Starting:  Identify who might be harmed

Benchmark data such as sickness absence data or occupational health support uptake give an indication of potential pressures.  The questionnaire is a risk assessment tool which investigates the presence or absence of known organisational stressors.  It should be issued anonymously to all staff.

Assessing:  Evaluate the risks

The questionnaire results should then be input and analysed.  Analysis of the data rates employees‘ perceptions of the six key management standards factors from demands through to change. This provides an overall organisational result.  It does not provide results on individual well-being.  As well as summarising the overall results for all staff, the results for several smaller groups can be obtained in such a way that staff still remain anonymous, through prior category selection using the Excel based programme. (Free programmes are available at either or

Obvious categories are to group staff into departments.  Overall employee perceptions of the six stress factors are automatically rated and displayed using a colour coding system, from red, which is an urgent outcome, through to green, which is stress-free.  This identifies potential ‘hot spots‘ and allows the main improvement to be focused on the relevant group or relevant issue.

Indications from the questionnaire results and benchmark data suggest potential pressures.  This should be developed through focus groups.  Focus groups involve a one to two hour meeting of staff of similar backgrounds.  There is normally approximately 10 staff at each group.  The number of focus groups required depends on the number of staff and number of job types.  Staff is encouraged to participate and have a very open and honest discussion to get to the root of any problems, using the results of the survey as an initial tool.  The facilitators for the group should be impartial, trained and be able to reassure the group that all information will be kept anonymous.  Normally the only information to come out of the focus group will be a summary of what that group sees as the main priority problems and suggestions for potential solutions in bullet point form. 

Implement:  Take action and record the findings

A summary report can be compiled from the questionnaire and focus group findings and feedback to staff and management.

Often there is a long list of suggestions.  Steering groups have proven useful for selecting issues and planning the on-the-ground implementation.  Actions need to be agreed with senior management and if there is union representation, through a partnership approach.

Realistic choices have to be made about actions to be taken.  Issues such as bullying and violence need to be addressed quickly.  Other issues should be chosen based on the number of people they will bring improvement to and the degree of benefit they will bring.

There are a number of published solutions on the Work Positive, HSA and HSE websites which have been successfully tried and tested in individual case studies. 

Monitor and Review: Re-assess, keep on the agenda, Manage

At the end of the process organisations will have negotiated changes which address excess pressures. This should create a healthier work environment for staff, it should improve the culture at an organisational level and this should have the knock on effect of promoting well-being at an individual level.  Monitoring the environment should be done to assess if the above is occurring and identify where it is not occurring, what areas are affected. Reviewing is done on an annual or bi-annual basis and involves some record keeping and benchmarking of findings and issues arising.

Project Background

The companies involved volunteered to participate and were thereafter chosen by the two state bodies. They were matched, as far as is reasonable, so that they could provide support to each other. Fermanagh College was matched with Sligo IT, Dundalk Town Council was matched with Newry and Mourne District Council and Craigavon Hospital was matched with Sligo General.

The project started in October 2005 with a half day seminar for nominated representatives from all companies involved. 

The half day seminar was aimed at the company Chief Executive and also the Human Resources and/or Health and Safety personnel who led the stress management project. 

This was followed up shortly afterwards by a half day visit by the HSA and HSENI personnel  to the nominated staff within each company to discuss benchmarking data, the issuing of questionnaires and analysis of data within the company. 

The statutory bodies ensured staff in each organization were briefed beforehand either through short informal meetings or letters to staff. 

Thereafter, the questionnaire was given out to all staff, divided into categories appropriate to that workplace.  Staff were given from 2 to 4 weeks to complete and return it in confidence to the Statutory body in the case of two of the HSA‘s organizations, and to their in-house evaluation section in the case of the HSENI‘s organizations.

A subsequent visit was paid to the organizations to discuss the input of the data or analysis of it.  An electronic version of the questionnaire with groupings consistent with a previous staff survey was prepared for one organization so that their survey results would be further corroborated with a pre-existing set of results regarding occupational wellbeing more generally.

Focus groups were then organised for management and staff to elicit more information as to the stressors, the findings and the groupings affected.

These were carried out in a number of ways, either with assistance from the statutory bodies, employee assistance providers or in-house.  

Feed back was given to all staff and an action plan drawn up.   At some feedback sessions, facilitated by the two statutory bodies, further issues arose which were then incorporated into a report for management, in consultation with staff. 

Discussions were held with a number of organizations to help identify successful interventions. 

The two statutory bodies provided phone back up to the nominated staff, assisted with feed back presentations and prioritising interventions. In some cases, group training sessions were delivered to groups of staff, in other cases; training initiatives were requested on a more individualized basis. In other cases, team building sessions were accessed or individual occupational profiling offered and taken up for individual personal development.

The meetings, held at approximately 5 monthly intervals throughout the 18 month programme, provided a forum for participants to share knowledge at the various stages of implementing the management standards and examples of interventions topical to the various sectors.

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Selection of organisations

The project was carried out in matching organisations both North and South of the border with comparable group sizes.  The projects aim was to jointly implement the process in six organizations and therefore all organizations were chosen from border counties to allow for easy contact.

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Summary of results

The project was not designed as a rigorous scientific analysis of results in various organizations, but to use these results as an opportunity to raise awareness and address an important health issue in the workplace setting. 

As stated earlier Work Positive is a risk management process incorporating a risk assessment.  In fact Work Positive has two versions of the risk assessment questionnaire.  The short version deals only with the key stressors as outlined in the management standards i.e. demands, control, support (managers and peer), relationships, role and change.  The longer version has additional questions regarding reward, contribution and indicators.  Some organisations in the case studies opted for the short version of the questionnaire and therefore only results from the key stressors as outlined in the management standards have been tabulated and compared below.

The ultimate aim of any organization as defined by the suggested targets is to be in the top 20% of organizations in respect of work-related stress, i.e. displaying green on the results table.

Results table

Work Positive - Results table

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Work-related stress is often seen as too complicated to address, but it can be treated in a similar way to any other workplace hazard.  This project shows that this important health issue can and has been tackled by local organizations to create a more positive work environment.  The project is designed to encourage organisations to tackle work-related stress, drawing on case studies from real workplaces. 

Organisations are encouraged to measure themselves to identify problem areas.  Employers are encouraged to take the key learning points from case studies here, on the Work Positive website and the HSE website and build on this good practice by developing their own specific solutions, in collaboration with employees and their representatives.

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