Target the bullies to beat stress epidemic

A leading employment counsellor is urging organisations to root out
workplace bullies in a bid to halt the spread of the UK’s stress epidemic.

Colin Jackson, a counsellor with consultants HDA, blames bullying and
harassment for a large proportion of the stress related absence.

An exclusive survey recently carried out by Personnel Today in association
with the Health & Safety Executive found that more than 1.5m days are lost
to stress every year at a cost of more then £1.24bn to employers.

Jackson, who has counselled traumatised employees for 11 years, believes
bullying often goes unchecked and leads to staff missing work because of

"We have to root out bullying now. It’s becoming the major issue,"
he said. Bullying and harassment are the major causes of stress and the saddest
thing is the victims often go on to become bullies themselves."

He said HR had a crucial role to play by assessing and training managers to
improve the way they interact with staff.

"Often, people who have a bullying style don’t recognise they’re doing
it – that’s why managers should get coaching to change the way they

However, Jackson also claims the condition is misunderstood.

"Stress is not a clinical illness. It’s something that causes other
illnesses such as depression, heart problems and substance addiction," he
said. "There’s been a massive increase in the number of people who believe
they are suffering from stress and the more society talks about it the worse the
problem becomes.

"The word stress is now at the very front of people’s minds. We say
stress when we really mean pressure."

Levels of stress at work are rising though, and Jackson said employers must
improve training so managers and staff can spot the warning signs.

"I’m concerned about stress in the workplace because so much of it is
avoidable. It’s about preventative measures. Managers need more training on how
to deal with their own stress and that of staff," he said.

Essentially the problem occurs when an individual becomes so stressed that
working is no longer possible. But because everybody needs a certain amount of
pressure to perform it’s a difficult balancing act for both bosses and staff.

"People achieve their best under a degree of pressure, but if it gets
too much they can burn out," said Jackson.

"It happens most in the financial industry where people just reach
breaking point. [If they do] the business has failed the individual. It’s not
always possible to identify the signs, but good managers shouldn’t let it get
to this point," he added.

Ironically, Jackson said, the major problem was at the other end of the
scale, with more people becoming stressed because of too little pressure.

The complete opposite to ‘burn out’ – where staff are engaged in boring,
repetitive, jobs with too little pressure and no challenge – is just as bad

This idea of ‘rust out’ has been seen in the car manufacturing industry,
where managers started to rotate duties and give workers more responsibility in
a bid to reduce stress.

Whatever the situation, Jackson said, good communication was crucial because
uncertainty was a key factor in rising stress levels.

The current GP sicknote system is critical to the problem and Jackson
welcomed the recent investigation into the issue by Personnel Today.

"The sicknote system is under pressure and it’s very difficult for
doctors, especially around workplace stress," he said.

Jackson said that since the 9/11 attacks in New York many employers have
started to realise that they have a duty of care to workers’ mental and
emotional health, although, he noted, this also makes business sense with
people more likely to return to work if they have had counselling.

"Peer support is important and if people stay off work they can be cut
off from their support network of friends and colleagues.

"Often, managers are afraid to contact absent workers for fear of
harassing them and this can lead to staff sitting at home thinking nobody cares
about them."

Jackson said there was still a very ‘macho’ culture towards counselling
generally, but admitted that attitudes have started to change.

For the future, Jackson predicts that all managers will have to possess some
basic counselling skills if they are to keep an organisation’s performance high
and retain the best people.

By Ross Wigham

What HR must do

– Have a good stress policy that is clearly understood by all

– Where possible, provide guidance for staff  

– Initiate better training for managers to spot the signs of
stress early on    

– Root out workplace bullies  

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