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Editor’s Comment: Stress in the 21st century

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Annie Ward

By Annie Hayes, HRZone Editor

Wednesday marked National Stress Awareness Day, an annual event now in its seventh successive year – stress though is far from a cyclical event, it is ever-present in every-day life and seemingly in all walks of life; Editor’s Comment looks at the issues.


We’ve all seen the cartoons of stressed managers pulling their hair out at the growing piles of paperwork and the pressure from the boss at the top but this perhaps is a somewhat simplistic view of the state of stress in the UK.

We now know that stress is not an exclusive condition of top tier managers and employers but that it permeates down to all levels of workers. Indeed stress can be as much a condition of inactivity, boredom and lack of self-worth then pressure demands and over-work.

It is for these reasons together with the growing cost of stress that it is a much debated topic of late.

As a subject of discussion it has reared its head at the recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) national conference in Harrogate and also as the focus of reports from the Institute of Directors (IoD) and Trades Union Congress (TUC).

But these groups are far from united on their views of the impact stress is having on the employment relationship, further muddying the waters of a clear way forward.

The IoD say that 58% of its members report to having no experience of stress incidents while the TUC says that as many as three in five workers now complain of being stressed at work.

Reflecting upon the opposing views Ben Willmott, CIPD Employee Relations Adviser told HRZone:

“The CIPD’s annual survey into employee absence shows that a majority of employers have noticed an increase in stress-related absence during the past twelve months. Although it is worrying to see stress-related absence on the increase the survey suggests employers are taking action to address this.”

So what is stress and how can we combat it?

In Creating a Stress-free Office by Simon Priest and Jim Welch a psychologist’s view of stress is presented:

“Stress is a feeling which results from excessive pressures and environmental stimulation.”

Stress then is defined as a human reaction, not a feature of the environment.

By implication, they say that this feeling is unpleasant and unwanted, and there are likely to be associated medical symptoms if the pressure persists. There is not a single ‘stress feeling’. For any individual it is a range of thoughts such as:

  • ‘I am failing’

  • ‘I can’t cope’

  • ‘This isn’t fair’

  • ‘Nobody cares’

  • ‘I can’t switch off’

Our individual ability to cope with pressure varies from person to person. For most of us and for most of the time, stress manifests itself gradually.

If the level of pressure is excessive and is sustained this causes unpleasant levels of cortical arousal negative emotions, physical symptoms and unhelpful thoughts.

The key to handling stress is to recognise the symptoms and manage the situation before the problem escalates.

The four symptoms of stress include:

1. Physiological symptoms
These are changes in the functioning of our bodies and our physical reaction. Complaints may include headaches, back pain, nervous twitching, stuttering, skin irritation, changes in heart rate and blood pressure to name a few.

2. Emotional symptoms
These are changes in the way we feel about what is happening around us and how we respond in an emotional sense.

3. Cognitive symptoms
These are changes in the way we think about what is happening to us or in our style of thinking. Common signs are behaviours including mood swings, hostility, anxiety, crying easily, anger, fear, depression, hopelessness, apathy and insomnia.

4. Behavioural symptoms
These are changes in the way we react and behave in response to the situations we face. Stressed workers may be over-alert, under-alert, increase their smoking habit and/or alcohol or drug habit as well as eating more or having a suppressed appetite.

The dilemma for employers is associating these symptoms with stress-related illnesses. After all these signs can also be side-effects of medicinal drugs or causes of non-work related issues.

Speaking at the CIPD annual conference Karen Seward of Allen and Overy said that:

“There is a growing need for stress audits.”

Employers should compile stress policies based on their own analysis of internal stress audits, Seward went onto say.

Of course it is not a manager’s role to play health practitioner but that aside just being aware of the symptoms of stress will do little if they are not acted upon once the prognosis is confirmed.

Priest and Welch suggest that employers approach the individual who is thought to be suffering from stress. An interview will allow you to compile a clearer picture of what is happening. Solutions may include:

  • Training

  • Personal coaching

  • Support

  • Time off

  • Flexitime

  • Renegotiating objectives or deadlines

  • Job redesign

In a very serious case a doctor will need to be consulted.

Of course while managers can control some of the triggers of stress there are external issues that play a part.

Speaking at the CIPD conference, Cary Cooper professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School said that the changing face of the UK’s working culture had raised stress levels among UK managers.

Professor Cooper went onto say that while managers in the UK and US had the same long hours and job insecurity culture those in the US appeared to show less stress.

“The US has always had long hours and jobs have always been unstable, but work has changed in the UK over the past 12-15 years, we’ve become very Americanised,” he said.

HRZone member Jeremy Thorn said the problem is confounded in each nation’s culture and its perceptions of work:

“Is this stress not much more about the degrees of self-will and determination as perceived and even manifested in each country’s cultures?

“Yes, the US is a real hire-and-fire culture, with minimal social safety nets by UK/EU standards. But that culture greatly embraces values of private enterprise, individual opportunity and risk taking that we in the UK do not – nor perhaps the other countries he mentions, who also have the added pressures of recent history and national political and economic uncertainty?

“Focusing on the issue of perceived self-determination/realisation, rather than working hours, isn’t this factor further reinforced in its significance by the recently published figures of Public Sector absenteeism in the UK, which far exceeds that in the private sector where worker autonomy and self-actualisation seems to be ‘felt’ to be greater, most especially in smaller organisations?”

Whatever the causes of stress either internal or external what is undisputable is that ignoring the issues costs businesses. The TUC say that stress at work costs the UK economy £7billion a year through sick pay, lost production and NHS costs and accounts for 6.5 million lost working days. If Britain is to boost its economy stress is surely an issue that must be addressed before it spirals out of control.

5 Responses

  1. Lies danm lies and statistics
    Once again the public sector is being held up as the “absence kings” of British workers but do the statistics really bear this out?

    On an industry sector comparison the public sector does fare badly – with Transport and Communication breathing down our neck but when you look at other factors the picture isn’t so simple. Most public sector organisations are large, the Local Authority that I work for has 25000 employees and when you look at the absence levels for large private sector employers their absence rates are comparable to those in the public sector. Just consider the recent publicity about the days lost through sickness at British Airways, which were far worse than the average in the public sector. So it all comes down to who you compare us with and on a like for like comparison the public sector is no worse than anyone else.

    Of course absence levels are a real concern and there are factors which help to explain the problems we face. The public sector has a large percentage of the employees in the jobs that top the stress surveys – teaching / social work. We employ people in physically demanding roles, like looking after the elderly and vulnerable, where back problems / other injuries which wouldn’t stop our office workers from attending work force our front line staff to take time off for the safety of the people we care for. Any infection can cause problems for the elderly or infirm so it’s not suprising that our front line staff have to take time off with conditions that others could work through.

    The public sector also tends to have a higher percentage of female staff than many other industries – 80% where I work and the Governments own figure show that absence levels are 25% higher amongst female civil servants than their male counterparts. This alone could explain the difference with many other male dominated industries.

    The public sector is easy to attack but in reality absence levels are too complex to make inferences from simple statistics.

    If life in the public sector is so cushy why does nearly every local authority struggle to recruit and retain staff in vital areas like teaching and social work. We may have index linked pensions to look forward to but remember what they are linked to – how many graduates are attracted to teaching by the pay? Bearing in mind that the Government is having to build social housing for public sector employees because they can’t afford to buy their own, would you want to live on a teachers salary for the next 40 years just to benefit from an index linked pension when you retire?

  2. GIVE SOMETHING BACK … AND HELP YOURSELF AT THE SAME TIME
    Hmm, might be getting all stressed myself reading this … but there are a wealth of ways to work with the issue,that’s the positive side.

    One issue I’d like to highlight is the ‘busy person’ who doesn’t get time to think, to develop, to maintain their own career employability … leading to stress and ‘rust-out’.

    These busy people are often our best people, so I’m talking about looking after our best ‘talent’ here.

    One answer (which came up recently at an event Cary C himself helped run for senior civil service managers) was … give something back!

    ‘Giving something back’ in the form of mentoring for colleagues (or for people in other organisations in a cross-sector scheme), off-line, in a well-run scheme, has generated a lot of benefits in the scheme I manage at the Scottish Executive.

    Mentors, all of whom are very busy people in very senior roles, report that by volunteering as mentors:
    – they get a fresh sense of perspective about their own problems and issues
    – they develop non-judgemental listening, crucial in helping their own teams in tough times
    – they have an opportunity for thinking about their OWN development needs
    – they build links and understanding across formal boundaries
    – they get some of the well-known benefits experienced by people who volunteer
    – they get ‘thinking time’ which fits relatively easily into their busy schedules.

    Happy to expand if you wish –

    Nick McBain FCIPD
    [email protected]
    http://www.nickmcb.co.uk

  3. Stress is good
    Stress in the workplace is seen as one of the biggest problems in today’s business climate. It¹s one of the biggest causes – directly and indirectly – of absenteeism. It stops people from working efficiently and even drives some to leave or take premature retirement. But putting the right sort of stress on people can actually create a positive environment where people blossom and productivity goes through the roof.

    As a species, we all need some stress to help us function. It has been a driver to our evolution and to top achievers maximising their gifts. Ask any top performer how they feel before going on stage or into the stadium and they will describe symptoms that include raised heart rate and heightened senses – faculties that will drive them to a better performance. Most writers will tell you that their best work is done to a deadline. And it’s a sure bet that Michael Schumacher doesn’t get into his Ferrari on race day feeling laid back!

    Most of us can raise our game in the right circumstances. But how can you harness this hugely potent asset in the workplace – creating “positive stress” – without generating all the downsides we normally associate with negative stress, such as ill health, tension and an inability to prioritise?

    The answer is good, constructive management, creating the right framework for people to produce their best – and feel rewarded and appreciated for that effort.

    By making your employees “happy and challenged” in their work, they do a better job; by having a flexible management structure where they feel they can explore their potential and “grow”, neither will they leave as soon as you’ve trained them or primed them for a promotion.

  4. Dangers of “stress audits” and “stress policies”
    Much of the conventional advice being thrown at managers about “stress” by otherwise reputable intitutions is misleading and even damaging, and is best ignored. Recent research has demonstrated that there is no single entity called “stress”. People can suffer from a variety of unpleasant emotions at work, but there are many causes and many different emotional responses. The use of “stress audits” and “stress policies” which ignore these facts are likely to be counter-productive and actually increase stress-related absences. In my work I have found it greatly preferable to conduct qualitative surveys among employees in which “stress” is not mentioned. Such surveys can reveal the specific sources of employee unhappiness and reasons for persistent absences which can then be addressed by management. “Stress audits” on the other hand positively lead people to think they are “stressed” and encourage “stress-related” absence. Because they are often standardised, they are usually very unreliable indicators of the sources of employee unhappiness and a poor guide to what follow-up action is desirable. Unfortunately, “stress” is spawning a whole industry, many of whose practitioners, although well-intentioned, are poorly informed or even verging on charlatanism.
    Peter Burton [email protected]

  5. Sickness and Stress are misunderstood
    Many statistics have been published on the high levels of sickness in the public sector compared to the private sector and particularly smaller companies.
    Much of the thinking on stress is that companies need to offer more flexable working arrangements and to be more “family friendly”.
    Yet it is most common for small companies to have the longest working hours, poor sick pay schemes, short breaks, less generous holidays, and generally less flexable working arrangements. This compares with the public sector, which have in my experiance some of the best holiday arrangements, generous sick pay schemes, relative job security, flextime, the best pension provisions, and are generally well paid.
    Therefore, I don’t see how it can be concluded that moves to improve leave, reduce hours etc etc help to reduce stress and absenteeism in general.
    The problems seem to be much more complex, and are related to our attitude to work, accountablility at work, and whether you get paid generously for taking time off work for
    sick leave.
    The attitude to work has changed dramatically in my working life of 30+ years, and people today are much more inclined to take time off for sickness – both odd days and long term sick leave. This is inspite of the fact that most people have better working conditions, are more healthy, and generally live longer.
    Perhaps it’s time that personnel bodies in this country started spending more time analysing the deteriorating work ethics within Britain for a better understanding of the increasing trend in absenteeism.

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