Nebulous and unacknowledged in law as the term might be, stress is
nevertheless very real in the workplace and is estimated to cost British
industry £9bn each year.
The Health & Safety Executive estimates 40 million working days a year
are lost due to stress-related illness. But there is no UK legislation that
compels employers to defuse the working environment for their employees and
address "stress" as an issue, despite one of the worst records in
Europe for stress-related mortality, illness and absenteeism. "The Health
& Safety at Work Act 1974 requires that employers must ‘ensure the health,
safety and welfare of their employees’," says the HSE’s Peter Morgan. "Yet
these are broad, general principles. Stress as a cause of illness would be very
difficult to prove."
Psychologist Brian Hill, who runs a private stress management centre in
Harley Street, London, reckons everyday life has never been more stressful.
"It affects every single one of us," he says. "It affects our
homeostatis, or balance, so we take energy from our physical, spiritual,
emotional centres to balance ourselves. Relationships suffer as well."
Some organisations claim to have taken an innovative approach to the problem
– eschewing the ubiquitous Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) in favour of a
workplace de-stressing area with names such as "anarchy area" the
"quiet room" and the "break-out area", which we profile
below. The more radical even allow employees to take a nap during the working
But professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of
Science and Technology (Umist) takes a cynical view towards workplace
relaxation areas. He believes many of them allow for longer hours and points out
that it is the chronic problems underlying the causes of stress which should be
"Nap rooms and massages at the desk are novel solutions, but they are
not solving the major problems," he says. "These could be inflexible
working hours, autocratic management styles or management directives. A regular
audit needs to be done to see if there is a problem and [whether] it is getting
Time management and prioritising are preventative measures which can help,
says Cooper, and that counselling should be provided for those who "fall
through the cracks and cannot cope".
Bluewater shopping complex
• Following consultations with the local Greenhithe and Kent community, Lend
Lease Corporation, the property and financial services group which constructed
and continues to manage Bluewater shopping complex, included the cost of the
Quiet Room in its £350m construction costs.
An average 25 employees and customers visit the room daily. "The
community wanted something that could give back to the people who work here.
The Quiet Room is interdenominational and staffed by various helpers from
groups within the community," explains managing director Adrian Wright.
"Their concerns range from, ‘I just need 10 minutes to spend by myself’
to ‘I have a personal problem that I would like to discuss with someone’.
"The Quiet Room is not a chapel in a religious sense, but a place where
people go to reflect, seek help and assistance and generally talk through their
problems," he added.
• With a "work hard, play hard" ethos at Microsoft’s UK
headquarters in Reading, the human resources team has come up with an
"anarchy area" where its 800 employees can go to relax and play
games. It has a pool table, coffee bar, TV, magazines, PCs and informal
Organisational effectiveness manager Denise Melvin says that the company
constantly reinforces the message that employees should look after themselves
and take time out. "Stress management is very important to us at
Microsoft," she says. "Our work environment is generally informal.
Fresh fruit is freely available, our restaurant has a range of healthy food and
we do whatever we can to make the environment as conducive as possible."
Staff also have access to a doctor, occupational health advisor and can
request a massage. The company also provides training on stress management
based on Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and
Fitness for Life which is intended to create physical well-being through diet
Clark Levy & Co solicitors
• In contrast to a purpose-designed room, solicitors Clark Levy, Gravesend,
has a spare room "below stairs" to which they can escape should the
pressures of the working day become too much. The room had been sealed off and
was only discovered when a member of staff put their foot through the floor of
the once-derelict building 20 years ago. Consequently a stairwell was added and
the room was designated as a working area for a part-time secretary, but also a
place to go to unwind. Staff talk over their problems there and the partners do
Partner Ralph Levy, who runs his practice without an appointment system, is
aware there are times when his staff do need to get away to "talk things
over, have a cry, or generally just be by themselves".
"The nature of our work is that we are dealing with people in
stress," he says. "I often have to deal with cases urgently. That
puts me under stress and this reverberates through the office. The room
downstairs is used only four hours a day by my secretary and is known as an
area where people can go for privacy. If they do go down there, no one will
follow them. If the room is in use, a staff member may then say they are going
for a walk, and of course I agree."
Cohn & Wolfe public relations
• The directors of public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe based in London’s
West End, took the unusual step of getting the building’s designers to consult
all 100 employees before the design was finalised 10 years ago.
"The employees’ answers drove our final design," says managing
director Martin Ellis. "They wanted as much natural light as possible,
open plan and an easily accessible, quick relaxation area.
"Consequently, instead of the directors having the three-plate glass
windows, the oil paintings and the potted plants, we took the opposite approach
and the executives are in the centre. This is truly a team environment, more
like a newsroom than an office, with an eye-line that goes right through the
The open area has two large sofas where people can read the paper and put
their feet up. "We totally encourage that," says Ellis. Team spirit
laps over into leagues for the football table, including single sex leagues and
"Things can get quite loud, particularly when there is an important match,
or a grudge match on."
Discipline within the company is self-imposed and employees manage
themselves. "We all know what we have to do and what the client
expects," says Ellis. "The stress comes from managing two or three
demanding accounts at any one time. We are aware that people in busy
environments won’t take a break, eating sandwiches at their desks. Our
relaxation area acts as a counterbalance to that."
Text 100 public relations
• The pressures of strict deadlines and demanding clients is catered for
also by PR firm Text 100, which has offices in South Africa, Australia and the
US. Glen Goldsmith, manager of the London Office in Shepherds Bush, says the
company came up with "duvet days" and a "break-out area" to
counteract the ups and downs of PR.
With a maximum of up to five days allowed, which are not counted as holiday,
employees can take a day off if they feel they cannot face work, while the
"break-out area", which cost £2,000 to set up, allows for time out to
play computer games, watch TV or chat on the sofa.
"If anything, we encourage people to spend time down there," says
Goldsmith, who admits he is concerned at the "epidemic of e-mail
junkeyism" of recent years. "We encourage conversation and
interactive human relationships." He claims that as a result that
stress-related absenteeism is low.
• The nature of the music industry means that day often rolls into evening,
because of concerts and entertaining. Senior HR manager Michelle Connolly says
the majority of offices have sofas, which can be used for naps, and its 350
employees are encouraged to take time out to de-stress and keep healthy. An
on-site gym also encourages this, with weights, steppers, bikes and treadmills.
"We also have a big social area, restaurant and pool tables," says
Connolly. "It is very much part of our planning to incorporate relaxation
into the working day. Offices are brightly painted, with music and colourful