Workplace stress: All stressed up with somewhere to go

Stress seems to be the curse of the working classes. How seriously should employers be taking this issue?

Stress may have been something of a Cinderella condition but now we can say it’s been to the ball and then some.

For example, last year saw the ground-breaking case of Dickins v O2. This Court of Appeal ruling made it clear that employers could be responsible for huge damages if they don’t manage stress-related illness among employees adequately.

In brief, telecoms company O2 had appealed against a December 2007 tribunal ruling that awarded Susan Dickins, a former O2 finance and regulatory manager, £109,754 damages for psychiatric illness negligently caused by stress at work. Having lost its appeal, O2 was liable for the award. There is also evidence that stress at work is rising. E-learning provider SkillSoft said 92% of 3,000 respondents to a poll carried out in November were experiencing workplace stress.

More than 40% of the polled workers said they were losing sleep through stress, almost one-third claimed they were becoming over-emotional, while 15% said they were drinking alcohol to help them cope.

Their top two fears were an increased workload and redundancy as the economic downturn intensified.

Duty of care

That employers should help employees cope with stress is a view shared by many respondents to Reward & Benefits Today‘s inaugural poll of 340 HR professionals responsible for benefits and rewards. The survey, in association with Nuffield Health, found 67% believe employers have a duty of care to help employees cope with stress-related issues. Just 1% thought they didn’t. And 97% of respondents thought employee stress was of some or of great concern to employees. But how should employers go about helping staff cope with stress?

Download the exclusive Reward & Benefits Today research, in association with Nuffield Health:  Research among reward and benefits professionals to measure attitudes towards rewards and benefits (613kB)

Research undertaken independently by Reed Business Insight

One of the first steps should be create a working environment where staff feel they can raise stress-related issues without fear. Also, employers should help managers recognise stress symptoms among staff, and be able to offer some initial help.

Oliver Patrick, head of physiology at Nuffield Health, advised managers be trained in detecting behavioural and/or physical indicators of stress among staff. He added that health questionnaires are a relevant way of assessing stress issues, and interventions will depend on the causes of stress and the budgets available.

He said intervention options can include one-to-one coaching for those suffering stress, lectures or workshops on how to handle stress, training managers in how to help staff cope with stress, and “environmental strategies” – such as providing exercise facilities. Certainly there is evidence that many employers are dealing with stress among their staff.

A recent IRS survey of 121 employers – covering a combined workforce of almost 540,000 people – found 101 had put measures in place to tackle workforce stress.

Most popular

The most popular methods were the use of return-to-work interviews after stress-related absence, used by 98% of those who had put measures in place, and the use of a phased return-to-work to help rehabilitate staff who have been on stress-related sick leave, used by 74%.

The Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards were used by 64% of the employers surveyed.

One of the great stress-busters is exercise. Should employers bother offering fitness and wellbeing benefits to help combat stress?

Some 78% of those asked in the survey disagreed with the statement ‘fitness benefits do nothing to help employee stress’. Some 93% thought the provision of fitness and wellbeing benefits showed employers care about their staff.

When it comes to the types of fitness benefits offered, the most popular – mentioned by 50% of respondents – is free, subsidised or discounted gym membership. Next are health assessments provided by employers of 44% of those polled and then medical benefits (31%). Perhaps surprisingly, gym membership and health assessment benefits were more prevalent among respondents in the public sector, mentioned by 58% and 52% respectively, than in the private sector – 48% and 41%.

It seems the belief that exercise is the best stress-buster is being taken to heart.

Nuffield health

Nuffield Health is a healthcare provider with a network of private hospitals and fitness centres.

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