Despite 81 per cent of managers experiencing symptoms of
stress, fewer than one in 10 organisations take action. But unless companies
learn how to lead by example and keep pressure at manageable levels, they will
pay the price in both legal and financial terms. By Kate Rouy
According to a report published last month by office equipment supplier
Esselte, British bosses work an average of 60 hours a week, second only in
Europe to the Germans. Almost half of those polled cited red tape, skills
shortages and the pressure to succeed as the reasons for working harder than
they did five years ago.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, an estimated 5 million workers
in the UK suffer from high levels of stress at work1. So it is not hard to see
how stress has become one of the principal occupational health problems – up
there with back pain – for many organisations.
But senior managers are apparently failing to heed the warning signs that
such excessive workplace pressure can turn into stress, damaging both their
performance at work and their home lives.
Research published earlier this year by the Institute of Management and PPP
Healthcare2 shows that almost three-quarters of executives say stress adversely
affects their health, happiness and domestic life, as well as their workplace
performance. Yet only 30 per cent feel their health and wellbeing are taken
seriously by their employer, despite the fact that 54 per cent believe their
organisation does value them as an important asset.
According to the Institute of Management study, carried out among 819 IM
members, most executives regularly experience a range of symptoms commonly
linked to stress, including excessive tiredness (81 per cent), disturbed sleep
(78 per cent), loss of temper (71 per cent) and lowered sex drive (55 per
cent). A quarter admitted to having to take sick leave in the past year as a
result of these kinds of symptoms.
However, despite the scale of the problem, fewer than one in 10
organisations have carried out any kind of stress audit in the past year, only
17 per cent offer any kind of employee assistance programme, and most
individuals are left to seek out their own stress solutions – some more healthy
than others. Fifty-seven per cent opt for some kind of physical exercise, 48
per cent seek the company of family and friends, while 43 per cent turn to
alcohol. In addition, one in 10 said they would like to try more alternative
therapies such as tai chi, aromatherapy, acupuncture or homeopathic remedies.
Most revealingly perhaps, executives taking part in the survey indicate that
some kind of stress management would be of benefit throughout their
organisation, with 74 per cent saying they would value it themselves, 68 per
cent believing it would be helpful to their boss and 70 per cent for their own
The causes of stress at work for those in senior positions are also examined
by the survey. Mergers and acquisitions, expansion into new markets, and
technology are cited. And the top five factors causing excessive pressure are
deadlines, constant interruptions, lack of support, poor communication,
incompetent senior managers and poor internal communication. In addition, one
in 10 executives say they have experienced bullying and intimidation on a
"Today’s executives find work enjoyable and satisfying. But unmanaged
workplace pressures are leading to stress for many, with serious implications
for the health and welfare of individuals and organisations," says Mary
Chapman, director general of the Institute of Management.
"Leaders of organisations need to work with individuals to identify and
deal with the root cause of stress, develop a healthier workplace culture and
equip people with up-to-date skills. For individuals, it means learning to
recognise and manage their own pressure points before they become a
According to PPP’s Tim Cuthell, an employee assistance programme specialist,
effective stress management requires a two-tier approach. First, individual
employees need to understand and recognise their own response to pressure and
develop a range of strategies to prevent it having a detrimental effect on
their work and health. Equally important, he says, is the need for employers to
be proactive in assessing the systems, culture and management style with regard
to the demands made on employees.
Many organisations are introducing employee assistance programmes (EAPs)
says Cuthell, to support employees at work, offering a range of free,
confidential information and counselling services for staff and their families.
Alternatively, to find out the levels of stress within an organisation, a
stress audit can be conducted, which usually involves the collection of data
through focus groups and questionnaires, with the resulting information used to
identify areas where stress and pressure are highest. The employer can then
take steps to tackle problems in these specific areas.
However, he says, there is a different set of drivers for those in senior
management positions within organisations.
"One of the most important of these is that people in senior positions
are perceived, and often perceive themselves, as being able to cope, and
therefore it is harder to contemplate that stress might be a problem," he
"One of the biggest issues we are dealing with is to shift this
perception, so that people understand their own resources and take steps to
manage stress effectively.
"Things are already changing. But initially the challenge is to develop
a culture within management that if you do not become aware of your own levels
of pressure, then you are at the mercy of what comes along and have no way to
One example Cuthell cites is the balance between home and work. "If you
can manage both, then you can be better at both," he says. "But it is
not going to happen if you are working an 80 or 90-hour week."
Alyssa Armstrong, manager of corporate wellbeing at Bupa Wellness, says the
impetus for dealing with stress has to come from senior management. "It is
no good if someone like me goes into a company, does some stress-management
training, then goes away again," she says.
Stress is increasingly being recognised as an issue by many organisations.
"Ideally they should do a risk assessment or an audit, and companies are
legally bound to do that, but it is not enforced. A lot of organisations feel
that it will tell them what they already know and as it is expensive, many
prefer to put their money into training, for example."
However, she says, it is only by starting at the top of an organisation that
any tailor-made programme has a chance of success. "If you go in at board
level, then you can get the board to buy into the concept," she says.
Another reason, she says, is that by mixing different levels within an
organisation you are less likely to persuade those taking part to open up.
"If you have a mix of people they are much less likely to speak freely.
It is really important to do it in a tiered way. Peer groups should be kept
together because they have the same sort of stress issues – senior managers can
find it hard to admit they need help."
Armstrong says a lot of companies are taking a long-term attitude and
introducing a fully integrated stress-management programme, including risk
management and counselling services. There is still some way to go, however.
"Behaviour and culture always filter down through an
organisation," she adds. "If we can get people at the top to make
changes in the way they do things, it will help them, it will save money, and
the company will be more productive.
"If it is recognised that stress is a problem, then senior management
can provide a lead, not only through the figures they produce every year, but
in terms of the culture and tone that they set."
Cuthell agrees that management needs to lead by example. "What is
happening increasingly is that where once an organisation would say ‘this is
not our problem’, people now realise that they cannot ignore the issue."
Cuthell also agrees that financial considerations are often a barrier.
"People have been talking about stress for a long time, but the first
thing companies consider is how seriously to take it, and then how to fund it.
"However, the impact of litigation, means that stress is being pushed
further up the order of priorities. An organisation’s culture will determine
the success of a stress-management programme."
Cuthell says his work as an EAP specialist involves close liaison with OH
departments. "There is so much benefit to be gained by linking medical and
counselling support. "A lot of short-term sickness absence has to do with
people needing time off work for stress-related problems, not for illness.
"A senior executive may say, ‘well, that’s all very interesting, but I
happen to enjoy working long hours’. My answer to that would be, that may be
the case, but if you are giving the impression that it is normal to work that
many hours, this may be increasing the pressure on the people working around
"If you have to work such long hours, perhaps you could try to do it
more privately, taking work home to do in the evening, perhaps."
The most helpful action an employer can take is to create and maintain a
culture where seeking help and identifying problems is seen as a strength
rather than a weakness, says Cuthell. To do so, he adds, it is essential that
the issue of stress is taken seriously and that resources are provided to
maintain the health and wellbeing of the people who work within it.
Dudley Lusted, director of corporate healthcare development at PPP
Healthcare, believes companies have no excuses for not taking the issue
"The prevalence of stress among British managers indicates a serious
failure of corporate governance," he says. "Organisational stress is
essentially a risk-management issue and as tools to address it are now to hand,
employers who neglect it are clearly breaking the law – with potentially
"Managers must also be brave in tackling organisational stress and do
their part to challenge the misguided notion that taking excessive pressure
without complaining is just part of the job."
1 The Scale of Occupational Stress: the Bristol Stress and Health at Work
Study, by AP Smith, E Wadworth, S Johal, G Davey Smith and T Peters, ref CRR
265/2000, price £25, available from HSE Books, tel 01787 881165, fax 01787
2 Taking the Strain: a survey of managers and workplace stress, by Ruth
Wheatley, ISBN 0-85946-313-3, £20 IM Members and Corporate Partners, £40 non
members, tel: 020-7497 0580, fax 020-7497 0463
The relaxation zone
The following recommendations outlined by the Institute of Management are
aimed at employers and senior managers and set out the elements of a
stress-management programme that could be adopted.
– Creating change in the long-hours culture needs commitment and leadership
from the top. Senior managers should lead by example and encourage others to
adopt more efficient practices.
– Organisations should establish a clear policy on workplace behaviours and
practices in areas such as working hours, flexibility and the absence of
bullying and discrimination.
– It is essential that an organisation’s training and development programme
ensures that managers are equipped to meet new demands, especially when roles
and responsibilities have changed, or where restructuring or new working
methods have been introduced.
– Monitor and proactively manage working hours and absenteeism as a means of
building relationships with employees, of understanding issues affecting their
work and of identifying possible problem areas within the workplace.
– The culture of an organisation, the beliefs and attitudes held by senior
managers and the degree of concern for employee welfare that is communicated
through example and practice are central to preventative stress management.
– Initiatives such as stress audits, internal employee satisfaction surveys
and internal communication audits are all useful tools in helping organisations
identify possible problem areas and take appropriate action.
– A climate of trust, open communications and genuine care will encourage
individuals to be honest when they are losing the ability to cope.
Source: Taking the Strain, a survey of managers and workplace stress,
Institute of Management, Feb 2000