Counting the costs of workplace stress

Workplace stress has its roots in the end of long-term employment, Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at UMIST, will say today.

"There is no psychological contract between employer and employee," he said in an interview shortly before the CIPD conference which is taking place in Harrogate this week. "Employers expect employees to commit to them but they do not commit to employees."

These developments can harm companies. He said that the cost of work-related stress is between £5bn and £6bn a year.

Professor Cooper accepted that many hi-tech companies have reintroduced generous staff perks such as sports clubs, but he argued that this was to sweeten the pill for staff and to facilitate long hours. The true test of a paternalistic employer is whether it looks after people.

"Employers are trying to provide good employee benefits while they are there. It does not mean they are going to keep them," he said.

"What if you have a personal problem and cannot produce the goods? In the culture in which we are operating employers will wait for the minimum time for you to recover. People are disposable assets."

The short-term contract culture is now well established, he added. Research shows that most people in the 55-60 age group have had four significant jobs, while many of those under 30 have already had four posts.

Professor Cooper has identified four key factors contributing to stress levels.

  • Long working hours

  • Inflexible employers not allowing staff to work partly from home

  • Insecurity – the knowledge that employees are disposable

  • Constant change

Disruption is practically continual at most companies due to mergers, demergers downsizing and outsourcing.

For the past four years Professor Cooper has helped produce the Institute of Management’s annual survey. "In every year from 1997 to 2000 two thirds of managers say they have had a major restructuring in the year," he said.

By Philip Whiteley




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