Most employers fail to tackle stress at early stage…

Most employers focus on helping employees who have suffered stress-related ill health to return to work rather than tackling its causes, according to a survey by Personnel Today’s sister publication Employment Review.

Nearly 13 million working days were lost to stress-related ill health in 2004-05, at a cost estimated by the Health and Safety Executive to be £9.6bn every year.

The study shows that, typically, employers have just two methods of seeking to reduce stress-related absences and four to deal with staff returning from stress-related sickness.

Despite this, the survey found that HR practitioners were most likely to rate work-life balance initiatives as the most effective stress-management intervention, with one in four (24%) putting this top of the list.

Other highly rated approaches included training managers in stress awareness (16%), regular staff appraisals during which stress was discussed (11%), and risk assessments, in compliance with health and safety regulations (11%).

Other less highly rated interventions included culture change programmes. These were favoured by just one in 20 respondents (5%), but their low approval rating may simply be a reflection of the fact that few organisations will have tried the approach. Employee assistance programmes (5%) and counselling services (4%), often set up in an attempt to catch problems early, also ranked low.

The report was based on survey responses from HR practitioners at 74 organisations, which together employ more than 235,000 employees.

…but simple interventions can help

Employer interventions to try to prevent stress-related ill health and absence can be as simple as providing leaflets and other literature on the subject, the Employment Review study shows.

The research found that two-thirds (67%) of employers with stress-prevention policies adopt this approach, making it the most common intervention of its type.

More than half of those surveyed also offer time management programmes to employees (56%), or have training and education programmes that deal with stress-related ill health (52%).

The survey also found that a substantial number of the employers that sought to prevent stress-related ill health had exercise programmes (43%) or healthy lifestyle programmes (43%).

Less than one in three of the employers seeking to prevent problems arising from stress put their efforts into relaxation programmes (30%), stress coaching (24%) or social support groups (9%).

…and counselling is cheaper than other medical solutions

Employers typically make counselling available to staff returning to work after stress-related absences, either directly through referral to a trained counsellor (85%) or as part of an employee assistance programme (57%).

This reliance on techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is backed by evidence of clinical effectiveness, the study suggests. One 2006 study by the London School of Economics claimed a £750 course of CBT was both cheaper and more effective than drug-based solutions.

However, one in three organisations also saw a need for specific interventions, such as alcohol and drug rehabilitation programmes, to deal with specific problems.

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