How seriously are employers taking stress?

Last week’s report by Personnel Today and HSA has provided yet more evidence of the growing problem that is work-related stress, says Alex Blyth.

Failure to manage stress is a serious threat to the future health of the workforce, according to almost all (97%) of the 600 senior-level HR practitioners surveyed by Personnel Today and HSA healthcare benefits company, while 36% of employers predicted that the health of the UK workforce would decline in the next five to 10 years.

Research by the Aziz Corporation consultancy found that 87% of employers were concerned that they will face an increasing number of stress-related compensation claims over the next five years. Judith Firth, employment associate with law firm DWF, explains: “While there are no specific regulations governing stress, employers have a general duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees. This involves assessing the risk of stress.”

Perhaps, however, employers should be more concerned by the productivity implications of stress. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that up to five million people in the UK feel either “very” or “extremely” stressed by their work. Stress has overtaken back pain as the single cause of absence from work. Sickness absence costs the UK about £12bn a year, according to the HSE, and stress accounts for almost one-third of that, at an estimated £3.7bn a year.

Anna Shuttleworth, director of Work Life Services at employee wellbeing consultancy Right Corecare, said stress-related absence was only half the problem. “While many people go absent because of stress, an increasing number go into work, but are likened to the ‘living dead’. That is, they are present but not performing.”

For Liz McCaw, client services director at employee assistance programme provider ICAS, the key is to spot the early warning signs of stress.

“In a business, the symptoms of stress will often be manifested by increased levels of absenteeism,” she explains.

“Sometimes these will be clearly attributable to stress, but stress can also reveal itself in health problems, including migraines, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and general fatigue.”

McCaw said poor relationships with colleagues and general dips in productivity were also signs of stress.

Nicola Clark, director at Investors in People UK, said that managers needed to tackle organisational culture.

“Managers need to create a ‘smarter’ working culture by setting clear goals for each staff member and offering support and training to ensure they can achieve them within deadline,” she said.

With so much worrying research emerging, it would be hardly surprising if employers themselves were to start feeling stressed about stress.

John Perry, senior consultant at the Aziz Corporation concludes, however, that feeling stressed might not actually be such a problem.

“Stress has become a buzzword used to account for all sorts of ailments,” he said.

“However, when most of us refer to stress, we don’t actually mean that we are physically ill. We mean that we feel pressure, something with which we ultimately can cope. Fortunately, pressure is not the same as stress and can be harnessed and used productively. The key is to learn how to do that.”

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