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Stress at work: Ignore at your peril


StressWork-related stress regularly tops the charts when the root causes of sickness absence are identified, and in the current economic slowdown, many employees are expected to work harder and longer for less. Tim Holden reveals the true cost of stress on your employees.

In the UK, over 13 million working days are lost every year because of stress. Stress is believed to trigger 70% of visits to doctors and 85% of serious illnesses (Health & Safety Executive stress statistics). The same organisation concluded that work-related stress affects men and women in equal numbers, and that people in the age group from 45 to retirement suffer more than younger people.

“There are clearly strong economic and financial reasons for organisations to manage and reduce stress at work, aside from the obvious ethical considerations.”

Stress is proven beyond doubt to make people ill and evidence is increasing linking ailments and diseases to stress. Stress is known to contribute to heart disease; it causes hypertension and high blood pressure, and impairs the immune system. Stress is also linked to strokes, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, diabetes, muscle and joint pain, miscarriage during pregnancy, allergies and even premature tooth loss.

In a work context, stress also provides a serious risk of litigation for all employers and organisations, carrying significant liabilities for damages, bad publicity and tarnishing of the employer brand. Dealing with stress-related claims also consumes large amounts of management time.

So, there are clearly strong economic and financial reasons for organisations to manage and reduce stress at work, aside from the obvious ethical considerations. At work stress can be caused by:

  • bullying or harassment

  • feeling powerless and uninvolved in determining one’s own responsibilities

  • continuous unreasonable performance demands

  • lack of effective communication and conflict resolution

  • lack of job security

  • long working hours

  • excessive time away from home and family

  • office politics and conflict among staff

  • a feeling that one’s reward is not commensurate with one’s responsibility

  • working hours, responsibilities and pressures disrupting life-balance (diet, exercise, sleep and rest, play, family-time, etc)

What does it actually cost?

A recent study revealed that on average sickness absence costs British employers £659 each year per person, whilst absence results in a loss of over eight working days for every employee.

Last year, the case of Intel Corporation (UK) Ltd vs. Tracy Ann Daw is evidence that employers cannot afford to ignore stress-related problems. Daw was awarded £134,545 damages following a breakdown due to work-related stress associated with her workload.

The findings from a recent project that Fluid completed revealed that stress was a particularly significant factor in work-related absence for the 27 members of a fast-track talent pool, and in this case led to a cost per employee of £722 compared to a cost of £497 per employee for the 211 other members of the workforce.

How is it caused?

“Stress can be reduced in a variety of cost-effective ways, and failing to act promptly can simply store up problems for the future.”

Stress is caused by various factors – not all of which are work-related (which incidentally doesn’t reduce the employer’s obligation to protect against the causes of stress at work). Causes of stress – known as stressors – are in two categories: external stressors and internal stressors.

  • external stressors – physical conditions such as heat or cold, stressful psychological environments such as working conditions and abusive relationships, e.g. bullying

  • internal stressors – physical ailments such as infection or inflammation, or psychological problems such as worrying about something

Effective management

The best managers set clear goals, communicate with clarity, consult, provide feedback and recognition, develop and coach subordinates. In addition there are a number of attributes that should be encouraged to take place at every possible opportunity:

  • Managing workload and resources – this requires managers to monitor team workload and refuse to take on additional work when the team is under pressure

  • Empowerment – this requires managers to trust employees to do their work and give them responsibility

  • Accessible and visible – this requires managers to make time to talk to employees and avoid being constantly at meetings

  • Expressing and managing own emotions – this requires managers to have a positive approach and avoid acting aggressively

  • Communication – this requires managers to communicate clearly and avoid holding meetings behind closed doors

  • Fright, fight, flight response – people’s responses to situations could determine their stress levels. When faced with a problem, do they fall silent? Do they stall? Deal with the problem? Or do they run away from the issue? If they feel that they cannot deal with the issue facing them, maybe they are already facing too much

  • Covert signs – small signs may speak volumes about a person’s present stress levels. An increase in smoking or coffee breaks, even a sign of alcohol abuse can be small enough to go undetected but may be a sign of the larger problem

  • Negative behaviours – these behaviours relate quite strongly to covert signs, except they may be more obvious. For example, these may include unusual responses to a situation or problem, such as an irritable reaction or acting unduly quiet

  • Extended hours – along with procrastination, over working is a key sign. Employees coming in early or leaving late, not taking lunch breaks or working the weekends may all suggest the workload is too large to manage

  • Home life is affected – if an employee’s life away from the office is being affected it makes it even harder to tell. Does the employee take holidays? Do they take paperwork home but don’t get the chance to do it?

Stress can be reduced in a variety of cost-effective ways, and failing to act promptly can simply store up problems for the future.

Ways to de-stress

  • Flexible working options and flexi time

  • Health and wellbeing: Regular exercise, alcohol only in moderation, no illegal drugs, a healthy diet and a sufficient amount of sleep

  • Home working: Reduce the need to commute

  • Meetings: Held regularly so that people don’t bottle things up

  • Parental leave: Maternity/paternity and unpaid leave for carers

  • Regular monitoring: Notice if people come into work looking haggard or seem to be lacking motivation

Tim Holden is managing director of HR consultancy Fluid

3 Responses

  1. Leadership required to tackle stress!
    Full marks for highlighting the importance of the issue of workplace stress in this forum.

    Having tackled this in a number of different work environments, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of managers and leaders taking a proactive, positive approach to this. This excludes blaming the employees.

    Embracing organisation wide Stress Risk Assessments proactively, i.e. identifying risk areas before they become manifest in individuals or work areas is absolutely essential, though far from a panacea. They are the start to a comprehensive organisation wide approach to tackling the issue.

    Too often the manager and employee stand-off and non-productive conflict ensues, once a problem arises; “Employee: we have a problem with stress, Manager: no we do not”. The risks of the costs of legal action blur clear, rational thinking and good judgement.

    The key issue is how much this problem of stress is costing the UK economy. Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension, the AIG bonuses and all the other City bonuses could have been paid off several times over!

    Organisational leaders and managers need to take action! “Ask not what your employees can do for you, but what you can do for your employees.”

    How many HR teams have enabled their leadership and management teams to take proactive action on this matter?

  2. Embedding Psychological health and wellbeing at work
    This is an extremely useful summary of the issues relating to stress or psychological distress.
    There are many challenges for those of us trying to reduce and eliminate the epidemic. The greatest, to me, is the challenge of engaging managers in managing people. People problems seem to be problems for the people and not the boss – a gross form of mismanagement that is costing business, services and individuals a massive toll in money and productivity. Our own approach is two-fold: to help create a management culture based on commitment and trust, and to help managers adopt behaviours that foster commitment and trust based on being attentive to employee needs married to organisational requirements. The more attentive managers are with their staff, the more attentive staff will be in return, effectively reducing risks of psychological distress and enhancing the psychological health of employees, leading to greater performance, and less cost.

  3. Couldn’t agree more
    Thanks for this helpful article Tim. As a stress management specialist and having experienced first hand the effects of undue stress, I know the importance and value of effective stress management techniques.

    In my work with corporate clients, I find that employers are often hesitant about raising the subject of stress becuase they think people will jump on a ‘bandwagon’ and suddenly half the workforce will be taking time off on sick leave.

    I can understand their concern, but in my experience, I have found employees less likely to admit to being stressed and underplaying their condition because they fear an admission to being stressed will adversely affect their careers. This means that, unless employers commit to training line management to spot undue stress in their teams, stressed workers continue to try and battle on through which is the worst thing that could happen for both employee and employer.

    The truth is that undue stress adversely affects performance of the individual and has a knock-on effect for the rest of the team.

    My question to HR Zone members is whether they can afford NOT to have an effective stress management programme in place? Ignoring it, as Tim rightly points out, can lead to tribunals which can be costly not only in terms of compensation payouts, but also in terms of management time in handling a case, legal fees and in terms of poor publicity which can result and affect future recruitment and credibility.

    One solution I have found for some of my clients is that we address stress management as part of a positively worded programme, which not only sounds more positive, but also allows the employer to raise the subject of stress without feeling they’re opening the flood gates.

    If you want to get the best from your staff and want to have a positive effect on your organisation and the bottom line, take a good look at stress management and make sure you have all your ducks in a row. It can pay huge dividends.

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