· 10 min read · Features

Workplace Stress Survey 2007: Red alert

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Employers admit that stress is a major problem, according to the Human Resources Workplace Stress Survey 2007. Yet many are dragging their feet in adopting strategies to tackle it. It is time for this issue to go to the top of the urgent pile.

Is stress the single largest issue now facing employers? Last month's finding by UnumProvident and Oxford Economics that 10 million days were lost due to stress, depression and anxiety merely added to a growing body of research that points to UK workers feeling more and more under pressure.

The scale of the problem is borne out by Human Resources magazine's 2007 survey, conducted in association with AXA PPP healthcare. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the rise in work-related stress it recorded a few years ago has now levelled off and there is even evidence that it is falling. But our findings paint a different picture: over half of HR professionals (51%) think stress in their workplace has become more of an issue than it was 12 months ago. For the public sector the figure is even worse: 64% consider it to have escalated in the past year.

Now in its third year, the survey, which covers the 12 months of 2006, reveals that workplace stress is rife in 70% of organisations. Public-sector staff suffer significantly more than their private-sector counterparts, it appears, with a massive 88% of the sector's HR managers agreeing that stress exists in their organisation, compared to 63% from the private sector.

Perhaps more telling is the confusion that reigns when it comes to measuring, monitoring and managing stress. Only a third (35%) of total respondents say their organisations have a stress management policy in place, despite the HSE introducing standards back in 2004. Even fewer (20%) go about things the correct way by carrying out annual stress audits to identify stressors and their impact. And of these, less than two-thirds (60%) have used the resulting data to initiate practical strategies to tackle stress. Oddly, in 2005, more organisations were carrying out stress audits than last year (24% compared to 20%), which suggests a dangerous tailing off in what should perhaps be deemed the starting point in any organisation's understanding of this issue.

On the upside, some progress has been made since the first survey published in 2005. Then, just 20% of responding HR directors said that a company policy on stress had been approved and implemented, and this figure has now risen to 35%, so we can at least assume a positive trend is emerging, albeit slowly.

But some occupational health experts remain highly critical of progress so far. "The fact that companies are not viewing stress from a scientific, strategic, preventive perspective is extremely worrying," says Mark Simpson, managing director of AXA PPP healthcare's occupational health services. "Companies need to have accurate means of monitoring this problem. As a baseline it's useful to track and code absence relating to stress so that at least you can identify the problem and begin to calculate how much it is costing the organisation."

Simpson warns that employers should be aware that absence is just the tip of the iceberg. "Underperformance is probably more costly to organisations than absence," he says, "but it is hard to spot. For this reason it is essential that there are regular assessments of how staff are coping, and plenty of communication between line managers and staff so that if stress is developing, something can be done."

Clive Pinder, managing director of health and wellbeing consultancy Vielife, is similarly alarmed that organisations are attempting to manage something they haven't measured. "If 70% believe it is an issue, yet less than 20% actually have any metrics in place to measure, we're in big trouble. That's like a finance director saying he thinks the company's losing money, but he hasn't bothered to do a profit and loss account," says Pinder. "You can draw on any number of statistically validated tools out there, discover what the reasons for stress are and who is being affected, then get to work sorting it out. So why aren't organisations doing this?"

Lack of resources, overworked HR teams, and reluctance by managements to open a potential can of worms undoubtedly come into play. "We must also remember that 80% of people are working for SMEs today, and these smaller companies simply won't have the time or resources to invest in stress management," says Simpson.

The survey results verify this statement. Of companies with an annual turnover of above £1 billion, a healthy 67% have policies in place to manage stress, but for those turning over less than £5 million the figure is 26%, and even lower (24%)when the turnover is between £5 million and £10 million.

Sectoral differences

When the survey figures are broken down by sector, it becomes clear that stress has been so prevalent in some areas that the employer has been forced to take positive action to tackle it.

More public-sector work, particularly employees in front-line education and health and social care jobs, are now being monitored for stress, and staff who are under too much pressure are being given support. For instance, almost a third of respondents in the education sector (32%) said that their organisations are carrying out stress audits, and 64% said employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are now in place. However, in the media and retail sectors, as well as in professions such as law, the survey finds stress problems going largely unchecked. In retail, for instance, 71% of respondents said there was stress in their organisation, yet only 32% had stress management policies in place, and only 7% were carrying out audits.

Occupational health experts advocate taking a holistic view of workplace mental and physical health. They suggest having an integrated health and wellbeing programme in place, based on data collected from confidential health assessments and performance and attendance indicators. Such tools can help HR professionals identify and forecast what is causing stress in the workplace.

But our survey shows that sheer volume of workload is once again the prime reason, with 78% listing this as the main culprit. 'Lack of support' comes next, followed by 'overstretch', that is, where individuals are expected to take on tasks and make decisions beyond their capability.

Trying desperately to get the job done, in all these cases, typically results in people working extra, unpaid hours. According to the Government's latest Labour Force Survey, there has been a slight decline in the numbers doing 'unacceptable' levels of unpaid overtime over the past five years. While 4% of the workforce were working unpaid for more than 10 hours a week in 2001, today the figure is 3%. However, the TUC has calculated that it will still take until 2030 before working more than 10 hours extra a week is totally eradicated.

The TUC recognises that millions of pounds worth of free labour is given by Britain's workers, at the expense of a healthy work-life balance. "This is a recipe for burn-out and inefficiency," says TUC general-secretary Brendan Barber. "Employers in long-hours workplaces should be asking hard questions about their culture, how their work is organised and whether they can repay staff through allowing more flexible working arrangements, without waiting for a change in the law to allow everyone to request a better work-life balance."

When you look at the causes of stress by sector, overload is consistently cited first. In the health and social care sector bullying takes second place, while for employees working in education, 'lack of resources' is cited as the second biggest stressor. In professional services, lack of control comes second, and lack of support third.

Training line managers to spot the early warning signs of stress is something occupational health professionals fully recommend, but according to the survey, only 10% of line managers are considered to be 'aware to a great extent' of what to look out for. The majority (67%) are only 'somewhat' or 'slightly' aware, respondents said, while nearly a quarter (23%) are completely unaware.

Douglas Miller, author of several books on positive psychology and a consultant at HR training consultancy Wright Solutions, believes it is a lot to ask overstretched line managers to take on the responsibility of intervening in colleagues' problems where the complications of mental wellbeing are concerned. "It may sound logical to ask line managers to be spotting where team harmony is poor, or where time management is out of control. However, having the time and skills to spot and deal with often very personal and complex problems is quite another matter," says Miller.

Third-party help

Companies are clearly compensating for this shortfall by making more use of third-party help. This year's survey certainly shows a ramping up of EAPs across nearly all sectors. Counselling and information services, either provided internally or through affiliated third parties, are now available in 61% of organisations, while in 2005 this figure was 53%. However, when asked if such services were considered an adequate provision for managing stress in the workplace, only 56% of respondents agreed.

Quite so, thinks Pinder at Vielife. "The answer to stress is not to say 'we have an EAP' so we are covered," he says. "EAPs are reactive tools that usually only engage between 5% and 15% of the population. They are a 'rear view mirror' tool for identifying stress and mental health issues, by which time the negative impact of these issues has already manifested itself."

However Eugene Farrell, business manager for organisational health management at AXA PPP healthcare, believes EAPs are a cost-effective way of putting anxious employees in touch with people who can genuinely help before they go off the rails. "If EAPs are fully integrated with HR and Occupational Health, and are given adequate profile, they can be very useful. They are a valuable tool for early intervention in an individual's problem," says Farrell. "Staff have the opportunity to self-refer, so even if line managers are under pressure, or are not fully trained in dealing with specific problems, there is someone else to turn to."

Farrell says the majority of problems dealt with by EAPs are not work-related but are largely to do with personal relationship problems and financial difficulties. "Individuals may be bringing their resulting stress or depression into the workplace, so it makes sense for their employer to provide support," says Farrell. "The challenge is unravelling what may be a whole host of personal problems to get to the root of the stress. How many line managers have time for that?"

One in 10 survey respondents thought that more than three quarters of employee stress was caused by work issues. A third said it was between 51% and 75%, and another third estimated it as 26%-50%. These figures suggest that companies would do well to anticipate and manage stressful elements of their employees' day-to-day jobs, and introduce EAPs to tackle additional, external problems.

AXA PPP healthcare's Simpson points out that common sense has to come into play where all workplace stress provisions are concerned. "If an organisation is going through a major change programme involving relocations and redundancies, there are going to be increased levels of stress and anxiety in that workplace, and the HR and occupational health departments need to be anticipating and managing that," he says.

Conversely a company striving for competitive advantage may benefit from job pressures that force staff to give their very best. "Businesses feel they need to keep pushing their people to achieve market comparable performances, which explains why high levels of pressure and long hours are considered the norm in so many organisations," says Simpson. "But in these instances we would still recommend they make provisions to spot those people who are not just thriving on pressure, but are actually getting out of their depth."

With talk of economic gloom ahead, record levels of personal debt in the UK, and the long-hours culture apparently a permanent fixture, few would forecast a marked decline in workplace stress this year, or even the next.

70% - of HR professionals feel stress is a problem in their organisation

51% - think it has become more of an issue than it was a year ago

10% - of line managers are 'aware to a great extent' of what to look out for

35% - say their organisations have a stress management policy in place

97% - in the health and social care sector say stress is a problem

ENCAMS - WORK-LIFE BALANCE CULTURE MINIMISES STRESS

ENCAMS is the Wigan-based environmental charity that runs high-profile campaigns such as Keep Britain Tidy and the Blue Flag beach awards. When in 2000 the organisation carried out its first-ever staff satisfaction survey, it revealed that many employees were stressed, disillusioned and felt they were working long hours with limited rewards.

"We were haemorrhaging about one third of employees a year and had problems with low morale and absence through sickness," says human resources manager Tony Palmer. "But in the past six years the situation has reversed."

After much research and consultation ENCAMS management undertook to overhaul the way it employs people, introducing a culture where working lives are better balanced with personal lives. Today there are 41 work-life balance options in place ranging from flexi-hours and family crisis leave, to a BUPA employee assistance programme and access to a company-funded doctor. The crucial change was the switch to home working for nearly half the workforce.

"I feel that stress in the workplace can be virtually eliminated if you are brave enough to embrace a new way of working," says Palmer. "If employees can cut out stressful journeys into the office, or be more available at crisis times when their families need them, you will see productivity improve and absence reduce."

In 2006, ENCAMS became a Sunday Times Top 100 Company to Work For. Last month it followed this up by being ranked 93rd in the 2007 list. Significant recruitment, absence and office provision cost savings have given the company competitive advantage since the change programme was implemented. A balanced scorecard system operates to ensure all employees deliver against clear output measures, and close contact with line managers is key to keeping staff on track and performing in line with expectations.

"We now have extremely low employee absence, and our latest Investors in People report recounts how happy, engaged and supported our team feels," says Palmer. Staff turnover has reduced by 24% since 2001 to about 10% today.

"The targets we set are incredibly tight," Palmer points out, "and there is pressure for people to deliver to deadline and meet expectations of big clients such as government departments. We are living proof that a work-life balance model does not lead to a deterioration in productivity."

HIGH STRESS SECTORS - HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE: POSITIVE ACTION TAKEN

Health and social care is the most stressful sector to work in, with 97% of sector respondents saying there was stress in their organisation, and 67% saying it had increased in the past 12 months.

Perhaps it is no coincidence then that the health and social care sector is doing the most to tackle that stress. 60% of respondents say there is a specific policy in place to manage stress, and a relatively high 30% had carried out audits. Also encouraging is the fact that 63% of these organisations are making use of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) standards, and a massive 93% of respondents in health and social care say their organisations offer employee assistance programmes (EAPs).

PUBLISHING, PRINT, MEDIA: LITTLE OR NO ACTION TAKEN

Publishing, print and media has a recognised stress problem, with 70% of sector respondents acknowledging it in their organisation and 65% saying it had worsened in the past 12 months. Yet only 3% of these organisations had undertaken a stress audit and only 22% had a policy to manage stress. Only 32% are using HSE stress management standards, and only a third (35%) offer EAPs.

MANAGING AND MONITORING
On average, how much time per week does your HR department spend
managing stress?
% of respondents
1-2 hours per week 61
3-5 hours per week 23
6-10 hours per week 8
More than 11 hours per week 8

Do you have a specific policy in place for managing workplace stress?
No 49
The policy has been approved
and is being implemented 35

Has your firm undertaken stress audits to identify causes of stress in
the workplace?
No 71
Yes 20
We are in the process of
developing an audit 9