Tackling the drivers of stress

The Government’s £61bn boost for public services over the next three years
has created a lot of excitement in the sector, with a growing expectation that
it just might lead to better schools and healthcare provision.

But employers, unions and occupational health experts are becoming concerned
about the strings that the Chancellor Gordon Brown has attached to the biggest
sustained increase in public expenditure for 30 years.

Pressure on the public sector to deliver improved services is set to
increase with funding being tied to reform and results. So, while Whitehall
draws up ‘demanding national targets’ for the public sector, there is growing
concern that the mood of excitement among staff could be transformed into

Hugh Robertson, head of health and safety at Unison said: "There are
huge reorganisations and changes going on in public services and they are a
significant cause of stress. Public sector employers are just not addressing

Professor of organisational psychology and health at UMIST Cary Cooper
claimed the high stress levels in the public sector are a result of the
combination of long-hours culture, lowered job security, competing government
initiatives and constant change is leading to high stress levels in the public
sector, claimed.

Workers in large public sector organisations are absent for 12.9 days each
per year. This is nearly a third higher than staff absence in the private
sector, according to research by DLA MCG Consulting, and much of it is

Furthermore, research by Zurich Municipal shows that two thirds of local
government human resources staff believe they do not have the skills to help
their authorities reduce stress. Four out of 10 respondents expect the number
of stress-related claims to rise.

David Benson, personnel director of Shropshire County Council and chair of
the Society of Chief Personnel Officers’ employee support group, said:
"Everyone is under increasing pressure in local authorities. The change
agenda is moving things in the right direction, but employers need to be aware
of the increasing burden of new performance targets and inspections.

"Employers have to keep an eye on the well-being of their staff,"
he said.

There are heavy costs associated with stress. It lowers productivity and
increases sickness absence. The CBI estimates that sickness absence costs UK
employers £11bn annually – of which £4bn is stress-related.

Stress also leads to high staff turnover. Research by the Society of Chief
Personnel Officers shows that after pay, stress is the biggest reason why staff
leave local government.

Despite the Court of Appeal laying down new guidelines earlier this year
stating that stressed staff must talk to employers before resorting to legal
action, and moves to force stress claims through the employment tribunal
system, employers that don’t take stress seriously are in danger of litigation.

If they fail to reduce the stress after staff have identified problems – and
breach their ‘duty of care’ – then are vulnerable to legal proceedings. And the
biggest compensation awards to workers suffering from stress have been in the
public sector, with two topping £200,000.

Things are not being helped by the emergence of the ‘compensation culture’,
said Catherine Prest, partner of law firm Eversheds, who explained that the
growing awareness of staff and unions has fuelled a rise in claims.

"Unions are committed to pushing through claims which means that staff
do not face the risk of funding their own litigation," she said.

Carrying out a stress audit is the first step in tackling the problem.
Somerset County Council recently completed an audit – or survey – to assess
staff health. It shows that while the majority of the 14,000 employees are happy
at work, many are working longer than a 48-hour week.

Virginia McCririck, employee relations manager, said the council will review
its workflow planning and setting of project targets.

While there are many tools for effectively assessing work stress, solutions
are harder to find and have a price tag attached.

Stress expert Cooper said: "Stress management is bottom line driven.
You need to convince people at the top that it is worthwhile. If you can show
the costs of sickness absence, extra recruitment and tribunal claims then you
will get buy-in."

Shropshire County Council’s counselling service only costs £16,000 per year
and yet is effective at lowering stress-related absence, said Benson.

"Tackling stress need not cost a lot of money. The cost of one person
taking six months off on sick leave could equal the cost of the counselling
service, and most staff that receive counselling stay at work."

While certain tactics are useful for limiting the spread of stress, only a
more fundamental re-structuring of work-culture will tackle the causes.

The Work Foundation’s head of the public services unit Stephen Bevan
explained that employers have to embrace work-life balance.

"There are a lot of deep-seated, organisational issues that play a role
in stress, including morale and work culture," he said. "Employers
will not be able to increase productivity without treating these ‘softer’
issues as importantly as ‘hard’ ones. The way that organisations work, generate
their culture and value people all have tangible outcomes on stress and

Stress – or more importantly the drivers behind it – will only be addressed
if employers make a commitment to change.

Unison’s Robertson added: "The cost of removing stress is far less than
the cost of living with it. But standard stress management responses don’t
necessarily work – you have to look at the management culture behind it."

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