Stress epidemic from changing work styles

Anyone who questions the incessant drive to “transform” work and workplaces is in danger of being called a Luddite. Increasingly, however, they are also likely to be called a doctor.

There is now overwhelming evidence that new work styles are making us sick – literally – and on an unparalleled scale. Second only to musculo-skeletal problems as a cause of sickness absence, stress at work now afflicts about 5 million workers, or one in five of the working population. If the numbers suffering directly or indirectly from work-induced stress all got sick around January, the media would unhesitatingly label it an epidemic. Britain is now suffering from a stress epidemic.

Particularly chilling for management strategists is the evidence that it’s the way they’re continually re-designing work that is intensifying the problem. Change programmes rarely assess what specialists know as the psycho-social risks of new work design. Too often the result is redefined or new jobs with low skill content, low job control, low involvement, and poor role clarity. From there, it’s a short journey to mental health problems.

A policy paper, New Work, New Stress, published by the Industrial Society this week, warns that the problems of stress are more complex than policy makers appreciate. The Health and Safety Commission acknowledges that the standard approach to risk assessment centres around visible hazards. Explaining why the Approved Code of Practice is not yet viable, HSC experts accepted that there aren’t “currently any clear, agreed standards of management practice against which an employer’s performance in managing a range of stressors could be measured”.

But a starting point for employers would be to distinguish between different kinds of stress in their organisation. A Harvard School of Public Health study has produced convincing evidence that executives and managers who largely control or prioritise their own tasks experience different stress from lower paid, less influential colleagues. Not altogether surprisingly, the decision makers’ stress was much less health-threatening.

It’s striking that corporate health promotions concentrate on the individual’s responsibility for controlling stress-related illness, rather than the organisation’s accountability for dealing with the problem. Witness the initiatives that headline healthy eating, fitness, or counselling – it’s not that these can’t help, but they obscure the fact the job is almost certainly what is making people sick.

A longer term answer is to build a real awareness of how change and particularly job design will impact on people into corporate decision making. A radically new approach to risk assessment, in other words. That will require managers with skills to spot signs of job strain and deteriorating mental health, and knowledge of what to do about it. The prize will be healthier employees and a much healthier organisation – in every sense.

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