As evidence pinpoints reasons for stress at work, so calls for action are growing. But many managers would argue that commercial pressures call for a balance. Philip Whiteley reports
Managers used to talk about stress; now they suffer from it. Traditionally it has been the case that while executives talk about work pressures, junior employees are far more likely to suffer, because they have less control and therefore less say.
But now everyone is insecure, says leading academic Cary Cooper, who informally advises the Health & Safety Executive on stress issues. "Lack of control is the critical factor in stress; however, from the shop floor to the top floor people have less control. We have a short-term contract culture. You are there when you are needed, you are a disposable asset."
This is reflected in findings from the lengthy Health & Safety Executive research into workplace stress, which has taken place over the past year. It found a unanimous desire among whom the organisations polled that more needs to be done about the issue. (Personnel Today, 20 June)
Cooper, who is Bupa professor of organisational psychology and health at Umist, thinks one of the surprising findings of the study is that, of the seven out of 10 respondents who backed a statutory code of practice, employers were as enthusiastic as staff.
"That stuns me," says Cooper. "You would have thought it would be 80 per cent of employees and only 15 per cent to 20 per cent of employers. That is really positive."
More positive still, Cooper argues that stress is a problem that can be fixed. "We have the science behind us. We do not need more research. We can identify the risk factors now."
The main triggers are a lack of control, long working hours, inflexible working arrangements, too much work and autocratic management, including bullying.
If managers now agree that these are hazards to be dealt with, the battle would seem almost won.
It is not so simple, however. On the shortest period of reflection it becomes clear that these factors are rooted deeply in the culture of an organisation, and might take years to turn around. Second, there is competitive pressure and the need to have a responsive workforce, rather than one which watches the clock, thinking only about their own welfare. So there is a balancing act.
"Some people still believe that working 70 hours a week shows commitment." says pers