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The creeping impact of stress at work

Chris Phillips
mental health

April was National Stress Awareness month and gave us all a helpful prompt to talk about a year-round issue that has such a negative impact on business and the individuals and families it affects. Insight from Chris Phillips, Specialist Employment Law Partner – Thorntons.

According to the Office for National Statistics, which carries out a labour force survey on this each year, some 12.5 million working days were lost to work related stress, anxiety and depression in 2016/17 – up from 11.7 million the previous year.

Sources such as ACAS estimate this translates to a cost to the UK economy of £30 billion, when you take into account lost working days, reduced productivity and the costs associated with employees who exit the labour market through stress-related illness.  Whatever your perspective, this is bad news and these figures have remained stubbornly consistent for 20 years, despite high profile campaigns, raised awareness about mental health and some enlightened employment practices.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) revealed last year that for the first time, work-related stress had overtaken musculoskeletal conditions as the most significant cause of work related absence in the UK. That should not come as a surprise given the very high levels of employment we have and the move away from heavy industry toward a more service focused economy. The HSE indicated that the areas worst affected were health and social work, public administration, defence, and education also underlining the public sector bias in the results.

What is particularly interesting from these statistics is how much more likely women are to be affected than men.  While it is speculation, could this be the burden of childcare falling more heavily on female workers who, like their male counterparts, still have to cope with the stresses of the “day job”?  Yet men remain more likely to suffer from physical ailments, particularly when they get beyond a certain age, no doubt reflecting their remaining predominance in more traditional industries.

The causes of work related stress are pretty varied but the main culprits are workload, bullying, threats and violence, lack of support and changes in the workplace. While there can never be an excuse for bad behaviour like bullying, a common theme running through some of the other causes is poor communication. This might be a failure to explain you have too much on, a lack of understanding about why change is happening and how it might affect you personally. It might also relate to a management failure to detect that someone isn’t coping and may need more support to properly fulfil their role and understand what is expected of them.

The importance of good communication is emphasised in the HSE Management Standards which were devised some years ago to help organisations identify and alleviate the main causes of work related stress.  They are well worth reviewing and organisations that do not currently have a strategy in place for tackling stress might also look at the Stress Indicator Tool offered by the HSE, which helps employers to measure staff perceptions of stress and signal more serious underlying problems.

While there are lots of good resources out there, the signs that all is not well within a team should be fairly easy to spot; absenteeism, irritability, signs of alcohol or drug abuse or other out of character behaviour can all be symptomatic of deeper issues. Higher than normal staff turnover in a particular team, complaints or grievances about a particular manager may all signpost stress and an issue that may need to be tackled. We need to remember also that stress may not just be work-related.  Domestic issues add to the load and make us less able to cope with everyday working life.

One thing is very clear, having a culture that encourages workers to talk about stress openly, without fear of being stigmatised and confident in the knowledge they will be met with support and encouragement, must be a good thing. Even the statistics suggest being proactive makes sound business sense, if our colleagues are at work and being productive rather than absent and struggling. Making time to talk to staff, whether in an appraisal once or twice a year, or better still, in more regular one to one discussions gives managers the chance to identify problems early on and address them.  If changes are planned in the workplace, talk about them and don’t spring surprises which may cause distraction and anxiety.

Stress is a fact of everyday working life and some pressure can be a positive motivation for many.  But excessive stress adversely impacts staff and those around them. Having a strategy that minimises risk and detect problems early on really is a no brainer.

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