Stress drives employee into the rough

If
there was any doubt that stress can have a big impact on business, this
cautionary tale sheds light on the high price that individuals and
organisations have to pay if they ignore it. Penny Wilson reports

Geoff
Smith worked for an insurance company for 13 years, having worked his way up to
area sales manager. One of a three-man team, he regularly brought in record
sales and commissions, until the trouble started.

One
team member went off on long-term sick leave, the other left and was never
replaced. Yet Smith’s manager insisted the ‘team’ sales targets and customer
visits had to stay the same, even becoming more bullish as the insurance market
suffered from a dire economic climate.

"I
was covering 400 miles a week, and worked from 7am to 10.30pm for about three
years," Smith told Personnel Today. "I had sleepless nights, woke up
sick and sweaty, gave up friends and sport though lack of energy and time, and
became aggressive."

He
would drive into car parks for a nap between visits, and wake up three hours
later.

Smith
didn’t know it then, but he was falling victim to stress – a condition
affecting thousands in the workplace, at an estimated cost of £1.24bn to UK
employers in lost days and productivity. According to Personnel Today and the
Health & Safety Executive’s recently released Stress in the UK Workplace
survey, which polled only senior HR practitioners, 83 per cent believe that
stress among staff has a harmful effect on productivity.

The
exclusive research also revealed that stress was on the increase and now
accounts for around 11 per cent of all sickness absence. Meanwhile, 60 per cent
of respondents to the survey claimed stress was adding to staff retention
problems. Almost a third suggested that senior managers weren’t committed to
the problem, while many line managers fail to even acknowledge that stress is
an issue.

Smith,
keen to tell his story to Personnel Today in a bid to help employers understand
the seriousness of workplace stress, said he repeatedly flagged up that he was
finding the lack of resources at his company difficult to cope with, but to no
avail. Then one day, he collapsed in tears.

"I
became suicidal," he said. He was then signed off sick for a year on full
pay.

He
later returned to his company, but found he still had high targets and no team.
Reluctant to cave in, he suffered two further breakdowns. Finally, with the
help of his union Amicus, he took his case to a tribunal and won a six-figure
sum in compensation.

Smith
is now deputy course manager at an Essex golf course on £18,000 a year. So,
what is his message to employers?

"They
need to look, listen and talk to staff. Workplace stress is a very serious
issue. It could have killed me. Employers need to understand one man’s pleasure
is another’s stress."

The
Health and Safety Executive is developing a series of management standards to
help employers deal with workplace stress. Draft standards are currently being
piloted across 24 private and public sector organisations. The HSE is looking
for your feedback before the standards are phased in next year (see www.hse.gov.uk/stress).

For
more on the stress survey go to www.personneltoday.com/features

Stress
in the UK workplace

A
comprehensive report on the findings of the October 2003 stress survey by the
Health and Safety Executive and Personnel Today is available now.Price £25.
Phone 01371 810433 or visit www.personneltoday.com/resources

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