· 2 min read · Features

What is this fuzzy thing called stress?


Its a fine line that employers have to walk. The HSA states that it is their duty to ensure employees are not made ill by work. But take the case of Andrew Watkiss he was turned down by Laing plc last year for the post of company secretary on the assumption that his schizophrenia would make him incapable of coping with the jobs high stress levels. He won a substantial out-of-court settlement. Steve Smethurst asks the experts for guidance

Rob Briner, senior lecturer in organisational psychology, Birkbeck College, London

Stress management is the one area of HR where no one dares to criticise. Companies just seem to believe the hype coming from consultants, trade unions, academics and employees. But its just a cultural phenomenon people describe all the problems theyve always had as stress. Job satisfaction in this country has remained static for the past 15 years. People are not deeply unhappy at work, stress is just a convenient umbrella label. For example, in any organisation you will find some people who are being bullied, some who need more training and some who take long leaves of absence. They might all call it stress, but the interventions go way beyond counselling thats just treating the symptoms. None of the off-the-shelf stress packages are particularly good people do surveys and dont actually talk to anyone. You might find that just warning people in advance about their workload or letting people know theyre valued will remove this generic fuzzy thing called stress.

Jane Ferrie, epidemiologist, department of epidemiology and public health, UCL

We studied the health of Whitehall civil servants over a period from considerably before privatisation to considerably after. These were people at the Property Services Agency who thought they had a job for life. We interviewed them, gave them detailed questionnaires and did health screens of blood pressure, cholesterol and height/weight. Prior to privatisation, these people had been slightly healthier than other departments. Afterwards, the picture was completely reversed. We have anecdotal evidence of suicides and heart attacks and proof of increased blood pressure and greater obesity. This has wide implications for employers the flexible labour market means uncertainty about jobs and this clearly has an adverse effect on employees health. Theres an increase in sickness absence and we found the worst effects of stress are seen when unions are saying one thing, employers another, and what they perceive to be the truth appears in the newspapers.

Nora Doherty, senior consultant, Professional Mediation Resolutions

One of the highest forms of stress in the workplace, which is not often referred to, is the anxiety and distress caused by conflicts or clashes with colleagues or with ones manager. It is often the hidden reason behind short- and long-term sickness absenteeism. Differences in opinions, different management styles or needs, what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, and even at the more extreme end of the continuum harassment, bullying or discrimination can be the cause of depression, lack of motivation, insomnia, and a whole variety of stress-type symptoms. Organisations should protect their employees by establishing a range of support mechanisms within the workplace, and in this case, access to workplace mediation could enable people to resolve disputes before they cause the breakdown of working relationships, poor decision-making, lower staff morale and productivity, and an increase in the likelihood of workplace accidents. Workplace mediation gives people the chance to talk to each other and find solutions to improve things in the future with the help of a skilled mediator who could either be someone trained within the organisation or an external consultant.