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Gethin Nadin


Chief Innovation Officer, Benefex

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Catastrophe looms: Skyrocketing employee stress levels paint a terrifying picture of the workplace tomorrow

Gethin Nadin reveals the shocking reality of how stress is showing up in the UK workplace, and how organisations are losing millions by ignoring it.
waves, sea, water

As we settle into 2024, it feels like as a nation, we are recovering from some kind of collective trauma. 

The significant impact of the pandemic may be behind us and the tail end of the cost-of-living crisis is ever near, but the toll this has taken on the workplace should not be underestimated.

Since 2020, the number of days lost to sickness absence has been steadily rising. The average employee now takes almost 8 days off on sick leave every year. Economic inactivity due to long-term ill health has also reached a record high. 

Currently, there are just short of 3 million people off work due to chronic illness and long-term sickness. To put that in context, that means around 5% of the entire country is now on long-term sick leave. 

The reason for this huge rise in absence rates is almost entirely down to one thing, stress. Half of all workplace absences in the UK are now down to stress. 

High levels of stress are changing the workforce

Without intervention, the way stress is now changing the health of our workforce means we are set to inherit a whole load of new workplace wellbeing problems in the future. 

A ground-breaking new study by University College London has found that people who experience stressful life events or circumstances are more likely to have worse biological health. 

The researchers found that common stress (like worrying about money) was particularly detrimental, with those experiencing this kind of stress being 59% more likely to be in a high-risk group for health issues. Each additional stressor increases this likelihood by a massive 20%. 

That sounds worrying enough for any people leader or manager, but it becomes hugely concerning when we overlay the fact that 9 in 10 UK adults say they experienced “high” or “extreme” stress last year. 

Two straight hours of Zoom meetings increase our stress levels and this accumulates with every additional video call. 

What is in a narrative?

When we talk about stress in the workplace, some narratives in the media seek to bash employers for causing stress and suggest that workplace wellbeing initiatives are merely a ‘band-aid’ over organisational issues. But I disagree. 

If you worked for the most progressive employer with a culture of wellbeing, life would still get you. You’d still experience stress outside of work and that would impact your life in work.

In APA’s October 2023 Stress in America survey, women reported a higher average level of stress than men and were more likely to rate their stress levels between an 8 and a 10 than men. The main source of stress for these women? Family responsibilities and relationships. 

The stress employees face in their lives can generally be put into two groups: 

  1. Workplace stress 
  2. Lifestyle stress 

When Mental Health UK asked people what was causing them stress in these two areas of their lives, this is what they said; 

  • Workplace stress tends to happen because of organisational structure and management issues (workloads, role ambiguity, isolation at work etc). 
  • While lifestyle stress is driven by poor sleep, worrying about money and poor physical health. 

Out of sight, out of hands

Managing workplace stress is relatively easy for employers. They can lighten workloads, train managers better etc. 

But managing stress outside of the workplace is incredibly challenging for employers, not least of all because it tends to happen ‘out of sight’. This is why it is so important for workplaces to put stress management resources and tools in front of their people so they can use them as they see fit. 

I believe, quite firmly, that there is a role for employers to play in better supporting their people to manage stress. Not least of all, because doing so unburdens employers from a significant financial strain. 

we are sleepwalking into a future where the average employer will be wasting close to £4 million a year

Modifiable lifestyle behaviours

Stress is an unfortunate part of modern life. As we’ve seen above, even when the workplace isn’t the source of any stress, employees will still be stressed. This will impact their health, which in turn, negatively impacts work and the workplace. 

There clearly is a role for the employer to play in helping their people develop the habits and skills that support them with stress management.

Employers must ensure that their workplace wellbeing strategy has effective support in place to deal with these worryingly high levels of stress. 

Here are three of the newly evidenced ways employers can use to encourage and develop healthy habits to better deal with stress among their workforce:

1. Educating employees on changing what we eat

Eating fatty foods during stressful periods can impair the body’s recovery from the effects of stress. 

Consuming high-fat foods before a stressful instance can reduce brain oxygenation.

Ground-breaking new research by the University of Cork is also establishing that the gut has a role to play in stress management. What we eat can even reduce the effects of PTSD

2. Offering moments of quiet reflection

Instrumental music plays a crucial role in stress recovery according to 2024 research. 

Many workers now use video calls daily to do their work, but this is having a disturbing impact on their health. 

Two straight hours of Zoom meetings increase our stress levels and this accumulates with every additional video call. 

These types of meetings also lead to more fatigue for marginalised groups. 

3. Encouraging better sleep

Stress activates the neurons that disrupt our sleep. 

A new study by the University of Pennsylvania just a few months ago has found that while poor sleep leads to lessened cognitive functioning, this is more heightened when we are struggling to sleep due to stress. 

Another study from 2023 found that better management of our mental health required us to have better sleep first. 

Financial drain

Life stress is a growing problem that is having a significant financial impact on UK employers. Since 2019, the cost of absence for employers has increased by a massive 50%. For industries like hospitality and retail, that cost is 500% higher. For a 1,000-person employer, the cost of absence alone this year will be £2 million. 

Stress is now directly linked to poor heart health according to two new, major studies. If employees don’t better manage the stress in their lives, it may accelerate the onset risk of heart attacks and strokes. We even have new research that suggests younger people are using vaping as a way of coping with stress.

If one in five of the country had measles, we’d consider it a pandemic.

If we do not do something to stem these rising levels of stress, or buffer against the negative effects of stressors at work and at home, we are sleepwalking into a future where the average employer will be wasting close to £4 million a year.

In 2023, 20% of the workforce said they took time off work because of stress. If one in five of the country had measles, we’d consider it a pandemic. If one in five of your people broke a leg on the stairs, you’d close off or replace the stairs. 

We cannot continue to leave our organisations exposed like we have been. It’s time to invest in ways to help our people cope better with life, or put the future of our workplaces at risk. 

Interested in this financial wellbeing? Read 2024 financial wellbeing trends: Five creative ways to put more money into people’s pockets

Author Profile Picture
Gethin Nadin

Chief Innovation Officer, Benefex

Read more from Gethin Nadin

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