· 7 min read · Features

Workplace: Stress Survey 2008 - Get a grip on your stressed-out staff workers workplace

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The results of this year's survey show that stress at work remains an incredibly damaging force. But amid all the gloom Alison Clements is able to detect some encouraging signs.

From whichever political perspective it is looked at, the issue of long-term absenteeism is one area where many politicians are in agreement. It was in January this year that Tory leader David Cameron proposed that all 2.64 million Britons of employable age currently on incapacity benefit should be made to undertake a 'fit for work' test. In February it was revealed that fewer than a third of claimants were genuine, prompting last month's Budget to unveil plans for workability testing.

Focus on the long-term absent is all the more pertinent as Human Resources magazine presents the results of its third Workplace Stress Survey in association with AXA PPP Healthcare. Stress and mental health problems are already known to account for 40% of absenteeism, and without mental health management and genuine support for employees returning to work, stressed staff often turn into the long-term 'unworkable' population. According to a recent report by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, the cost to employers of mental ill health at work is a staggering £26 billion a year. This includes the direct cost of sickness absence, staff turnover costs, and the huge hidden expense of 'presenteeism' (reduced productivity while at work). Today, the proportion of the workforce with mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression is 16%, the highest figure ever.

The results of our survey show that, despite attempts to rein in the epidemic of workplace stress, it is still considered just as big a problem today as it was last year: 69% of the 350 HR-practitioner respondents consider stress to be 'prevalent' in their organisations. This is only 1% lower than in 2007.

When split into smaller segments, private-sector respondents also feel levels of stress similar to last year, but a moderate improvement is seen by public-sector organisations. While 88% saw stress as a problem in the 2007 survey, that has dropped to 82%. Again the comparisons across the divide show public-sector organisations were more likely to have a stress management policy in place (43%) than their private-sector counterparts (29%), and more likely to be carrying out stress audits (37%) than the private sector (12%).

Validating the Government's concern, our survey reveals that stress is still an incredibly damaging force. This year's survey asked for the first time what had become of employees signed off with stress in the past year. Here, 46% said individuals chose to leave the organisation, 30% said they were still signed off as sick, 15% recorded that employees had taken early ill-health retirement, and 12% had been forced to dismiss such staff members.

Last September's CIPD and Active Health Partners (AHP) report, based on analysis of 80,000 absence episodes, found that an average mental health absence lasts 21 days, compared to just three days for infections and gastric illnesses, so it is clear that if employers could spot the triggers, offer help or find ways to ease the burden on staff, such absence could be better controlled.

Despite the stark figures in the Workplace Stress Survey there are, however, some encouraging signs, says Eugene Farrell, business manager for organisational health management at AXA PPP Healthcare. "It's clear there are many enlightened HR departments. We see, for instance, 38% of respondents saying employees with stress are referred for counselling, and 40% are referred to occupational health," he says. "The fact that almost half - 49% - of line managers regularly deal with staff stress problems could itself be read as evidence that line managers have the relevant skills to tackle difficult issues. Or it could be that line managers are simply fire-fighting."

Farrell said he is most struck by the 47% of HR respondents who would still refer employees suffering from stress to their GP. "That's a cause for concern," he says. "Making a habit of passing problems straight to a GP means HR managers are medicating something that could in fact be a manageable problem if in-house services or an external Employee Assistance Programme were made available. Going through the GP can be a slow process."

In February the Department for Work and Pensions proposed changes to the sick note system, aimed at creating a 'well note' culture offering fitness to work advice to patients and employers. "GPs are letting down patients signed off with mental health problems by not communicating effectively with employers," says Mike Emmott, CIPD employee relations adviser. "The evidence shows that a phased return to work can play a beneficial role in the recovery of people with this kind of illness."

A phased return to his high-pressured job proved to be a lifeline for Jonathan Naess, a corporate finance lawyer who has battled mental illness since his early 20s, and experienced absence from work and the challenges of returning. He founded Stand to Reason last year, a campaigning and training organisation that aims to fight the prejudice employees with mental health illnesses face in the workplace. "There is such a stigma and lack of understanding around mental health, and one of the greatest misconceptions is that work will be problematic and cannot be done if someone is suffering from stress or depression," says Naess. "In fact work is something that makes people better. So gradually coming back - perhaps taking on light administrative tasks first and building up responsibilities - and experiencing social interaction again is invaluable."

Stand to Reason, working with MIND, is developing a training programme to teach HR departments and line managers communication and performance management skills to help ease employees back into their roles. "The investment far outweighs the cost of losing a valued employer and having to recruit and train someone new," says Naess.

Positive employer action

Our survey clearly shows employers are taking positive action to support staff returning to work after time off with stress: 86% of respondents had introduced flexible or reduced working hours for returners, and 67% had reduced their employees' workloads. Half had provided access to occupational health, and 48% had redesigned jobs. "These are really positive responses, reflecting the fact that vocational rehabilitation is rising up the agenda," says Farrell. "Employers are being flexible, yet there are shortfalls in many organisations' commitment to dealing with stress. Many would benefit from measures to spot early warning signs, and support staff before problems escalate."

He highlights the fact that over a third (38%) of respondents felt their organisation needed to spend more in managing stress. In fact 23 HR practitioners thought their organisation was 'so badly managed that no amount of investment could remedy the situation'.

While workers in smaller companies may have more autonomy and engagement in their jobs, provisions for stress management are more limited: our survey shows 62% of respondents from companies with an annual turnover of less than £5 million said their line managers dealt with employees suffering from stress themselves, while far fewer - 39% - of those from companies with a turnover over £1 billion left stressed staff in the hands of line managers.

Thanks to advances in the understanding of mental health and general wellbeing in the workplace, the debate on how to deal with stress is widening. Investment in interventionist 'mental health programmes' by organisations such as AstraZeneca, Royal Mail Group, BT and Rolls Royce have resulted in these employers saving 30% or more of absence costs, according to The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.

Ingolv Urnes, CEO of AHP, says clients of his company have access to data captured on sickness absence because employees call nurse contact centres from day one of being off. "If someone is off for more than five days with stress, this triggers an automatic referral to counselling," says Urnes. "It's about speeding up the help on offer, and having in place a robust procedure for early intervention."

Attention is being drawn to 'resilience' as a major factor in managing the stress. "Our hypothesis is that stress is inevitable in modern life, and a person's resilience to it is more important than the amount of stress being confronted," says Drew Fobbester, managing director of MyVitality.com, an online resilience profiling company. "The more healthy a person is, the more resilient to stress they will be. If we can assess employees' vitality, and help them become healthier, they will increase resilience, cope better and be far happier in their jobs."

Corporate clients of MyVitality.com have taken their employees up from a 50%-60% 'vitality rating', based on a detailed quality-of-life questionnaire, to 80%-85%, resulting in higher levels of productivity and retention. Food giant Unilever has run a senior leadership health initiative over the past two years, and seen the resilience levels of participating managers reach greatly improved levels, says Fobbester.

Meanwhile, as our survey shows, employees' attitudes to their job and the organisation they work for can affect stress levels. Taking local government, from which a disproportionately high 90% of respondents felt stress was a workplace problem, 63% said they did not feel their staff trusted people at the top compared with the overall survey average (28%), and only 35% said their people 'have a lot of laughs at work' compared with the average of 42%.

In comparison, 67% of HR professionals who cited stress as a workplace problem in manufacturing paint a more upbeat picture of staff attitudes: 40% agree their people trust managers, and 47% felt their people have a lot of laughs.

Happy, fit, stress-free workers will undoubtedly need less time off sick. But, as our survey exposes, stress is so deeply entrenched in British organisations, that HR departments will be managing, rather than eliminating, this issue for many more years to come.

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KEY FINDINGS

- 69% of HR professionals consider stress to be a problem in their organisation, compared with 70% last year;

- 64% of respondents said employees signed off with stress in the past 12 months have returned to work;

- 53% of respondents consider stress to be more of a problem than it was a year ago;

- 47% of respondents deal with employees suffering from stress by referring them to their GP;

- 42% of respondents think less than half of employee stress is caused by issues at work;

- 46% refer employees for external counselling and 45% to occupational health;

- 33% of organisations have a policy in place for managing workplace stress, compared with 35% last year;

- 27% of companies with turnover of less than £5 million have stress management policies in place;

- 20% of HR professionals in manufacturing say their organisations have policies today, but 37% are developing policies;

- 18% of organisations have undertaken stress audits to identify causes of the problem in the workplace despite the HSE having introduced standards in 2004;

- 12% of firms had been forced to dismiss staff signed off with stress in the past year.

HR directors were invited to complete a special online questionnaire. The survey's results are based on the answers from 350 respondents

Local government: most stressed but also most prepared

- 90% of respondents say there is stress in their organisation;

- 73% have a stress management policy implemented;

- 47% think there is no need to spend more on managing stress;

UNFIT AND STRESSED OUT

Let's Get Healthy's analysis of 327 office workers in January 2008 reveals that those workers who became easily stressed had dramatically different results from those who felt they could cope. Those who became easily stressed had a higher absence level than those who didn't.

- 29% had taken two weeks or more off work sick, compared with 8% of their peer group;

- 94% of those people who were easily stressed suffered aches and pains every day compared with 58% reported by the rest of the group;

- 53% of the easily-stressed employees had erratic energy levels throughout the day and over 50% felt totally exhausted every morning.

Legal services: Least stressed and least prepared

- 43% of respondents say there is stress in their organisation;

- 18% of respondents have a stress management policy in place;

- 78% think they don't need to spend more to manage work-related stress.