· 7 min read · Features

Health and Wellbeing: Are employers on the brink of a stress epidemic?

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Economic recovery will put staff under severe pressure over the next few years. Emotional burn-out could result if firms don't act to avert a stress epidemic.

The economy may be picking up but employment figures are not. In this so-called 'jobless recovery', slimmed-down firms want to stay lean and agile. But what use will a workforce of nervous wrecks be to UK plc as things genuinely pick up? Combine this with a new fit note culture (see previous feature) that seems to favour presenteeism over productivity, and employees could be nearing breaking point.

New figures suggest there could be an almighty workplace stress bubble just waiting to burst. The mental health charity, Mind, (see interview, opposite), surveyed 2,000 workers and found one in five claimed they had developed depression as a direct result of workplace pressure, while 10% said they had visited their GP for mental health support. The research also revealed more than a third regularly work unpaid overtime, with one in 10 doing more than 15 hours per week.

"Companies want to pick up and push harder now that we're coming out of recession, but they're doing it with fewer people in the workplace," says Eugene Farrell, key client director at AXA PPP. "If we're not careful we are going to see big changes in the workplace because of this added pressure. There can't fail to be a knock-on effect on performance, attendance and relationships at work."

While some HRDs may not see this as an issue - one who asked not to be named said: "At least these people have jobs; having seen colleagues made redundant, they should be thankful just being here, even if that means working extra hard" - some companies are beginning to think more carefully about the emotional resilience of their people.

"Many companies have laid people off and are left with the core they consider their best. Creating an environment where these pivotal employees feel over-worked, anxious and unsupported could be disastrous," adds Farrell. "If these people crack up, what chance has the company of succeeding in the long term?"

He says organisations are starting to approach him about emotional resilience training, while others, such as Integration Training, which specialises in productivity and performance training, launched an Embodied Stress Management course during the height of the recession. It specifically gives people ways of coping with stress. "We help people get more done without going insane," says managing director Mark Walsh, who says he is finding some clients becoming interested in linking the mental wellbeing and emotional sustainability of their employees. Some, he says, are willing to embark on 'alternative' training courses - everything from meditation to 'Embodied Management Training', which incorporates posture and breathing control. "Enlightened organisations are investing now in their people to stop stress making people ill," says Walsh. "The majority wait until sickness rates hit 15% or someone has a heart attack before they react."

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has had a dedicated workplace stress website since 2002 (www.hse.gov.uk/stress). Its aim is to help organisations rein in stress-related problems. The HSE says the site has received 5.1 million hits in the past five years, and these numbers have risen every year since launch. But what's clear is that they believe simple steps can have a dramatic impact. When ScottishPower, for instance, used the HSE's Management Standards - six standards to help identify the main risk areas for work-related stress - it resulted in an 11% drop in sickness absence in just one year. The company now runs focus groups for staff to discuss what other interventions could help.

Rhea Duttagupta, founder of Corporate DNA Consulting, believes top-level executives will themselves face escalating stress levels in the coming months too. "Directors are in the spotlight and often feel alienated," she says. "They must add value, deliver results and constantly perform at their peak. Our view is that it pays dividends to take time to understand the DNA of executive boards, giving these pressurised individuals the chance to understand each other better and work together more effectively." Duttagupta says executives can suffer both role-related stress (overwork) and interpersonal stress (issues with colleagues). "All too often when leaders aren't coping, it boils down to a personality clash in the boardroom," she adds. "If you can build inter-dependence and understanding, you can create a strong leadership culture."

A survey of 300 managers across the UK and Ireland recently revealed that, despite 73% of managers believing health and wellness impacts employees' levels of engagement, managers don't admit to such problems at their own level. The survey by talent and career management consultancy Right Management showed 70% felt there were no issues. Kirsten Sholl, senior management consultant at Right Management, says: "There is still unwillingness in many organisations to talk about health and wellbeing issues such as workplace stress. Employers must ensure managers are tooled-up and educated on these matters if not only to satisfy their duty of care but to ensure the productivity of their staff and the wellbeing of their business."

The pressures of working life could be eased if leaders take responsibility for their people and equip middle management to get their teams through the tough times. Without emotionally resilient, well-supported staff, any precious new business coming through risks falling by the wayside.

NEW STANDARD FOR MANAGING STRESS

Until now there's been no official benchmark for good practice around psycho-social risk assessment in the workplace, despite the fact stress is one of the most common problems in working life. However, the British Standards Institute (BSI) announced in January this year that it is working with the Health and Safety Executive, the World Health Organisation, the European Commission and Nottingham University to produce a good practice standard - known as a PAS or Publicly Available Specification. The standard is due to be published this December. "HR managers and occupational health and safety managers will be able to refer to a document that will show managers how to carry out psycho-social risk assessments, measure and benchmark the risks, and start addressing work-related stress," says Mike Low, director of standards at BSI. For further information visit: www.bsigroup.com

TALK OPENLY ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS

Last month mental health charity Mind launched a five-year campaign to make workplaces more mentally healthy. The 'Taking Care of Business' campaign is encouraging businesses to address mental health in the workplace as a corporate priority.

"Rather than ignoring the issues of stress, depression and anxiety, we believe it's far more productive for organisations to tackle them directly, particularly now when things are still far from easy in working lives," says Mind's CEO, Paul Farmer. "Primarily we want employers to recognise that all staff are vulnerable to developing mental health problems. It's about understanding that people need to be properly supported at times of stress.

Both employers and employees should stop seeing mental health problems as a sign of weakness, but something that should be talked about openly."

Farmer's view is that the first step towards de-stigmatising mental health problems at work is to encourage a culture where employees can discuss stress and mental distress openly. He is calling for businesses to introduce workplace mental health policies, to have a framework for tackling work-related mental health problems, and to support staff who are struggling to cope or are suffering from depression or anxiety.

"Our message to the business world is that there's a strong bottom line advantage to doing this," Farmer adds. "Companies with a good approach to mental resilience are likely to see reduced absence rates, better engagement and improved productivity in the long term. Sickness around mental ill health is set to become the most significant cause of absence soon, according to the CIPD, so the time to act is now."

So what else can businesses do? "Creating the right physical environment can really help," he says. "Making sure work areas are light and there's space to relax can ease tensions." He also advocates proper lunch breaks - "something too few employees seem to take these days". Good leadership is also critical. "HR teams will obviously play a crucial role in training and supporting people across the business to be able to recognise problems and offer help. But senior management should also take a lead on the issue of mental health and be vocal and proactive on the subject," says Farmer.

As part of the campaign, Mind will be providing information and tips on its website, as well as producing printed packs containing materials on mental resilience and best practice. "We're also launching a new service called Mind Workplace, offering consultancy and training," he adds.

Farmer says five years is a realistic timeframe for this message to hit home - it will take that length of time to cement change. "We're working on this campaign with employers, specialist consultancies and unions, and we're confident of having a real impact. The big message is that if you want a happier, more productive workforce, now is the time to think about the mental wellbeing of your people."

BRITAIN'S MOST STRESSFUL JOB?

Since the Baby P case, applications for social work have dropped by 40% in some councils. Many cite the stress of high caseloads and fewer people as reasons for many dropping out of the profession. In January this year, Gail Kinman and Louise Grant of the University of Bedfordshire studied 240 trainee social workers (82% female, with an average age of 33) on their levels of emotional resilience and psychological distress, as well as several key attributes that might enhance stress resilience such as emotional intelligence, empathy and reflective ability. They found 43% had scores of psychological distress high enough to warrant psychological intervention. Kinman said: "This illustrates the psychological demands made on these workers. Our findings indicate trainee social workers who were more emotionally intelligent and socially competent were more resilient, and this seemed to protect them from the high levels of psychological distress that are endemic in the job."

BOTTLING UP STRESS

A massive 91% of employees are stressed at work, and 71% feel unable to raise their concerns with management. These are the findings of the latest Badenoch & Clark employment study, suggesting stress in the professional world is still a taboo subject. "By refusing to deal with such a crucial employee engagement issue, businesses are risking not only the health of their workers, but the quality of the work they deliver and the morale of the organisation," says Neil Wilson, managing director of Badenoch & Clark. "Businesses need to provide a platform to discuss these issues openly." The research reveals men are feeling the strain marginally more than women, with men more worried about the economy and their career prospects.

TOP FIVE CAUSES OF WORKPLACE STRESS
Increasing workloads: men 57% women 55%
General economic situation: men 36% women 28%
Job insecurity: men 31% women 26%
Not replacing people who leave the company: men 31% women 30%
Lack of confidence in business leaders: men 27% women 22%
Source: Badenoch & Clark