Take stress seriously or risk losing your competitive edge

Today is National Stress Awareness Day. For 13 years, the day has aimed to increase public understanding of a condition that affects thousands of people and businesses across the UK, yet one that is still woefully neglected by a worrying number of employers. Stress awareness is not only about keeping staff healthy and happy – ignoring it can also have a real effect on the bottom line.

Stress is a condition that has become more and more prevalent, exacerbated by the economic crisis. Companies are under increasing pressure to stretch resources and boost productivity, and this strain is being passed on to staff who are already anxious about budget cuts and fear of redundancy. This often results in increased stress levels as employees are forced to deal with excessive workloads, unrealistic sales targets and overstretched management teams.

The figures speak for themselves. Mind, the mental health charity, released a report in May 2011 claiming that UK businesses could save £8 billion per year if they managed workplace stress properly. The survey also found that 41% of workers experience stress, making it more of a concern than personal finances, health and relationships. And, according to insurance giant AXA, stress levels in the UK have doubled over the last four years.

Alison Loveday

Alison Loveday, employment law specialist and managing partner, Berg Legal.

Government consultations

It is notable that the publication of the Mind report coincided with the launch of government consultations on flexible working and parental leave as part of its initiative to promote greater work-life balance.

The Government has suggested that employers should encourage employees to enjoy their full holiday entitlement, allow employees to work from home where appropriate, consider job-shares and adopt flexible hours, for example during school holidays. In my view, flexible working should not be seen as an extra expense; instead it can reap rewards and lead to fewer stressed and anxious employees, resulting in a more committed and productive workforce. It is not appropriate for all businesses, but a blanket “no” would also be wrong.

It is important that all organisations, regardless of size, take steps to create an open and supportive working environment. The key to effective management is communication and training, and investment in these areas will reap dividends. Managers who communicate well, consult, and develop their staff are more likely to support positive mental health and resilience in the people they manage. Further, employers should ensure that they have in place mechanisms to deal with and help alleviate workplace stress, both in terms of staff training and dealing with individual cases.

Long-term absence

Statistics have shown that once an employee is off work for six weeks it is very difficult to get them back into the workplace. Many employees absent with stress are signed off for long periods. They find it difficult to consider returning to work and employers are wary of how to handle such situations.

It is essential, however, that these situations are managed effectively, or they may result in costly employment tribunal proceedings and/or a claim for personal injury (arising from the physical damage caused to an employee’s health by stress). If a claimant can show that a work-related personal injury for which damages are recoverable in law has been caused, that the injury was reasonably foreseeable and that the employer was negligent in failing to prevent it occurring, their claim is likely to succeed. This means that staying on top of the situation is essential, with line managers being trained to identify those employees who may be vulnerable and a culture of watchfulness entrenched within the business.

Policies on stress

Companies should use National Stress Awareness Day as an opportunity to examine their existing policies with regards to stress and to try to identify any problems before they become serious or widespread. Stressed employees are neither happy nor productive and the long-term absence that can result is bad for business. Increasing efficiency to cut costs can be counterproductive if carried out without looking at the impact it may have on employees.

Employers must take workplace stress seriously or they risk losing both their competitive edge and their best people. Should we continue to ignore the problem, we do so at our peril – in such difficult times, a stress epidemic is the last thing that the economy needs.

Alison Loveday is an employment law specialist and managing partner at Berg Legal

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