Stress at Work

Oral Answers to Questions — Enterprise, Trade and Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 30 September 2002.

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Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin 2:30, 30 September 2002

4. asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to make a statement in response to the launch of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work’s campaign to raise awareness of the causes of stress at work.

(AQO 213/02)

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

My Department, through the work of the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, recognises that the campaign provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of work-related stress. I am sure that many Members would agree with that. The European Week for Safety and Health at Work, which will run from 14 October to 20 October 2002, is the cornerstone of the campaign. Locally, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland is pursuing a comprehensive promotional programme.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Does the Minister agree that greater co-operation with the Department for Employment and Learning is needed to help to raise awareness of stress in the workplace and to help people to find a balance? In other words, perhaps an educational approach should be adopted.

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The Health and Safety Executive is committed to addressing the issue of work-related stress. The Member may find the following statistics interesting. It is estimated that at any time in Northern Ireland some 12,500 people experience work-related stress, anxiety or depression. In June, the Health and Safety Executive launched the European Week for Safety and Health at Work at Maydown. It used that opportunity to encourage all organisations in Northern Ireland to address the issue of work-related stress. As part of a wide-ranging advertising campaign, over 13,000 information packs have been distributed to organisations in the Province.

The information packs describe the causes of work-related stress and provide information on how it can be prevented. Furthermore, specific information from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has been included. A European week awards scheme is being co-ordinated, which aims to recognise organisations that excel in their efforts to support the working on stress initiative. Local winners will be recognised during a European week awards ceremony to be held early in 2003.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45, 30 September 2002

I welcome the emphasis on stress-related illnesses and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. People often suffer disadvantages resulting from the appearance of such illness on a medical certificate. Will the Minister ensure that employees are not put under further stress by having that information on their employment record?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

In my answer to Mr Kelly I omitted to mention the relationship between my Department and the Department for Employment and Learning. We have regular discussions, and training forms a key part of the activities.

Mrs Courtney made a very good point. Undoubtedly, there is a degree of prejudice about certain illnesses. It would be interesting to see how these matters are treated, particularly in the Civil Service. I cannot confirm anything for the Member at the moment; however, I shall make enquiries about the matter and I shall write to the Member, rather than give her an off-the-cuff response.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I thank the Minister for his response in relation to the launch of the European campaign. However, he omitted one point, which is the issue of those who are bullied at work. It is a big issue for many people who are off as a result. Will any help be available in the campaign he outlined for those who are subject to that type of abuse?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

There are several issues here. First, we must define "stress" and how it is categorised. For instance, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development carried out a social survey of farmers and farm families in 2001-02 to investigate the scale of work-related ill health in the farming community. The study found that 15% of the 3,400 people interviewed suffered from work-related ill health, with 5% of those interviewed reporting that stress, depression or anxiety was caused — or aggravated — by their work.

Furthermore, the situation varies between industries. Some people are continuously "off", as Mr Shannon put it, and it must be determined whether they are fit to return to work. People can be permanently disabled by stress-related illnesses. It is very difficult to be clear about stress-related illness. If someone has a broken leg, that is obvious. It is less obvious if someone is suffering from stress, and it can become progressively more difficult to analyse. The purpose behind the week of health promotion and the activity of the Health and Safety Executive is to raise awareness among employers, as well as workers. Taking Mrs Courtney’s point, people should not be discriminated against because they suffer from that disability rather than from any other.