Ten minute tutorial – stress

Simon Kent takes us on a whistlestop tour of
the symptoms and causes of stress

What is it?

A “mental, emotional, or physical strain or
tension”, according to the Collins
. However, detractors claim that workplace stress is impossible
to define, and point to the hundreds of definitions created by researchers and
occupational psychologists over the years.

A study in the early 1990s by the European
Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions cited that
stress is caused by constant time pressures, lack of influence over work and
the completion of regular repetitive tasks.

In a 1996 TUC survey, safety reps reported that
causes of stress include new management techniques, long hours, redundancies,
harassment and shift work.

The underlying theme appears to be that
workplace stress is the damaging feelings experienced by staff when they are
placed in a position with limited control and influence over the work they do.

The story so far

In the 1940s a physician named Hans Selye
noticed a connection between patients with complaints such as heart disease and
immune system failures, and the levels of stress they experienced. This stress
came from diverse sources, including the workplace and difficulties in their
personal lives.

Researching the way the human body reacts to
stressful situations, Selye concluded that stress is a contributing factor to
an individual developing a condition to which they are already predisposed. In
other words, if you take an individual with a predisposition to mental health
or heart problems and expose them to stress, they are more likely to develop
that condition.

Radical changes in the UK workforce during the
1980s gave stress a high profile. The ‘Americanisation’ of the workplace –
dismantling ‘jobs for life’, increasing hours and decreasing job security – led
occupational psychologists to draw links between increased workplace stress and
rises in sickness absence, premature retirement and a host of other workplace

Pressure on management to deliver efficiencies,
or just to ensure business survival, has encouraged a more autocratic
management style which increases stress levels even further.

The promise

Stress has been cited as one reason why the UK
works such long hours and yet still lags behind the US, France and Germany in
terms of productivity per person. The argument runs that the workforce is so
stressed – worried about job security, people unhappy with what they do for a
living and so on – that they do not fully commit to their organisation and
therefore do not realise their full potential.

If the reasons for stress are identified, or if
the organisation invests in ‘stress-busting’ measures, anything from
counselling and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to work-life balance
packages, the workforce will be happier and, consequently, more productive.

Pros and cons

According to the TUC, 270,000 people a year are
off sick with stress, costing British companies £538 per employee. Reducing
stress should therefore decrease absenteeism and increase productivity.

However, there are those who believe the entire
theory and methodology of workplace stress is ill-founded and even dangerous.
Angela Patmore of The Nerve Centre believes the stress management theory
“pathologises normal emotions”, and that “making people aware of stress
involves telling them to look for terrifying symptoms which could mean they go
mad or drop dead”.

While acknowledging the existence of high
pressure to perform and work long hours, claiming these practices have an
adverse medical effect may damage the welfare and working capacity of
employees, rather than introduce good working practices.

Who is on board/key

Just about every organisation across the public
and private sectors has examined stress in the workplace during the past 10 or
20 years. Many of the emergency services, including the police and the fire
brigade, have established their own consulting bodies to advise on stress
management in the workplace.

Stress has become a powerful issue for trade
unions with the TUC recently undertaking a campaign to ‘tackle the hassle’ of
workplace stress.

The Health and Safety Commission is also
concerned with the subject and notes that stress can be a contributing factor
to other accidents in the workplace.

Research organisations such as The Institute
for Employment Studies and The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have looked into
stress-related issues – the latter having recently published Brendan Burchell’s
study, Job Insecurity and Work Intensification.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Umist,
also works extensively in this
area and is currently compiling a History
of Stress
for a US publisher.

Workplace stress has gained such a profile that
very few HR consultancies do not offer stress audit and management solutions.

The issue is indirectly subject to legislation
through Health & Safety regulations, and the forthcoming obligation for
employers to consider flexible work options for employees could be seen as further
acknowledgement of the importance of avoiding work-related stress.

The verdict

Stress is a part of working life. To a certain
extent, the power of stress can work in a positive way: anticipation and
anxiety are natural and even useful feelings when considering what the next
step should be. If left unchecked, however, these feelings can adversely impact
on an individual’s performance. The trick is to identify when that point occurs
and how to intervene.

HR contribution

Regardless of whether you believe that stress
can have an impact on a person’s health and performance, HR must take action. A
Health and Safety Executive survey determined that around 500,000 UK employees
believe the stress they experience at work causes them ill health. Severe cases
can result in litigation under Health &Safety employment law.

Stress should be monitored throughout the
organisation and interventions made to lessen stress where possible.
‘Fire-fighting’ methods, such as counselling or extra curricula activities
intended as emotional outlets, are all well and good, but at the end of the
day, the workplace must be organised and managed to prevent stress from
growing. This may mean addressing fundamental issues, such as organisation
processes and individual management styles.

Essential reading:

Stress Prevention in
the Workplace
the Costs and Benefits to Organisation
by professor Cary L Cooper and Dr.
Susan Cartwright (both of Manchester School of Management, UMIST); professor
Paula Liukkonen, department of economics, University of Stockholm, Sweden

Published by the European Foundation for the
Improvement of Living and Working Conditions 1991

Job insecurity and work intensification: Flexibility and
the changing boundaries of work
by Brendan J Burchell et al. YPS (ISBN 1 902633 41 5, £13.95 plus £2

Stress in
the Workplace: Past, Present and Future
, edited by Jack Dunham

Work-related Stress: Manager’s Guide
published by the HSE

Stress at Work – a TUC guide for Safety reps and negotiators
published by TUC


– Trade Union Congress website

– UK National Work-Stress Network

– Health and Safety Executive website

– Stress UK website with information and links

– Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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