The economy and its impact on stress

The latest Employee Outlook report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) gives a new meaning to the term “squeezed middle”. According to the CIPD’s research, almost half of middle managers feel under excessive pressure either every day or once or twice a week. This group is also the most worried about job security, with one in three believing that it is likely they may lose their job as a result of the economic downturn.

With the UK on the brink of a double-dip recession, fears about job security have become a worryingly normal part of daily life. However, much of the focus tends to fall on those who have lost their jobs or remain long-term unemployed because there are fewer available vacancies. Yet the impact on the mental wellbeing of those staff who have been “left behind” should not be underestimated. Rather than feeling thankful to still be in work, many feel under stress because they have to do more work with less resources, often stepping outside their original job descriptions to help their employer meet targets. Line managers, in particular, feel under pressure, because they not only have to meet their own objectives, but also have to motivate their teams.

“There can’t be many people who are certain of their future employment. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen a number of household names enter difficulties. And if it’s not hitting them at work, then the downturn may have hit them in their pockets as prices increase,” says Sharon de Mascia, programme manager at the Centre for Mental Health, which works with employers on promoting early recognition of mental health issues in the workplace.

Increasing stress levels

Increasing workloads and fear of redundancy have also had a role to play in stress becoming the number one cause of absence, ahead of musculoskeletal conditions, according to the CIPD’s most recent absence management survey. According to de Mascia, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to depression and anxiety in the long term, so it is important for managers to recognise the early warning signs in staff. These could be occasions where staff seem unusually tired and irritable, where they lose confidence or take a number of short, unexplained absences.

The downturn may be leading many employers to see a decrease in absence levels, however, as staff force themselves to come into work even if they are ill, for fear of being seen to be doing less than their colleagues. “People dare not take time off, so you end up with a culture of presenteeism,” explains de Mascia. “But their productivity will be lower, as they won’t necessarily be 100% fit to work.” Presenteeism can also be a predictor of longer periods of absence down the line, she adds, as exposure to stress takes hold.

Mental health stigma

One of the challenges when it comes to promoting employee wellbeing is that there continues to be a stigma around talking about mental health problems at work. Despite it being the most common form of absence, employees can be frightened of admitting that stress is making them feel ill, in case they appear weak. Around three-quarters of people with mental health problems do not seek treatment from their doctor, so sharing their issues with a manager can seem even more daunting.

There may not be much that employers can do individually about the state of the economy, but there are proactive steps they can take to soften the impact of it on managers and staff. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can offer a way for staff to offload their worries in confidence, for example, and organisations can offset the cost of these against the potential long-term cost of sickness absence. Some organisations offer debt counselling or financial advice, either as part of their EAP or as a separate service, and simply helping someone plan their monthly outgoings can have a positive impact on how they cope with stresses at work.

According to Louise Aston, director of the Workwell programme at Business in the Community, the most enlightened employers see a symbiotic relationship between being well and being engaged. Some of the organisations that BITC works with recognise the increased stress that employees have to deal with, and are attempting to harness that energy into something positive. Mars, for example, runs a programme for staff called Performing under Pressure, while the consultancy Deloitte offers a similar scheme called Sharpen your Edge. Both programmes are aimed at building employees’ emotional resilience and their ability to deal with stressful situations.

This sort of approach is not as widespread as it could be, however. BITC conducted a survey with Ipsos Mori of FTSE 100 companies in 2010, which found that only 15% of them have a proactive approach to building emotional resilience in staff. “Companies tend to see employee wellbeing as offering gym membership or healthy-eating options, but it’s actually much more profound,” says Aston.

Line manager support

And while workloads have undoubtedly increased as a result of cuts to the workforce, managers also need to be mindful of external pressures that staff may be facing, which may or may not come as a result of the downturn. Their partners may themselves be facing redundancy, or they may be dealing with financial problems. Aston cites a statistic from the energy company RWE npower, which found that only 3% of its stress-related absence was actually work-related.

Equipping line managers to support their staff in dealing with stress, and also helping them to be mindful of their own mental wellbeing, is the most positive step an organisation can take. They will often be the first port of call if an employee does feel overwhelmed or needs time off, so they need support in dealing with this sensitively. “Line managers are often promoted for their technical skills rather than their interpersonal skills or emotional intelligence,” adds Aston. “But they play a pivotal role in helping employees to cope with the pressures of doing more with less, so employers should support them and offer them training.”

Ben Wilmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, agrees: “It is important that employers don’t ignore the health and wellbeing of their middle managers. With one-fifth of middle managers saying they are under excessive pressure every day, they are particularly at risk of suffering from work-related stress and burnout.”

The aim, however, is to prevent staff from reaching the point where burnout becomes inevitable. “Employers need to incorporate mental health into their risk assessments and get managers thinking about how mental health affects people,” advises de Mascia. Dealt with early, and with the right support, these workers can respond to treatment or taking time out and re-enter the workforce refreshed and engaged.

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