In offices across the country, time and time again we hear “I’m so stressed” and barely anyone bats an eye.
We’re living in an age where high pressure working environments are the norm and working longer hours is increasingly lauded and praised as a sign of a person working hard, of going above and beyond, but there’s no real consideration of the very damaging consequences this attitude can have over a prolonged period.
When we use phrases like “stressed to breaking point” and “stressed out”, do we really know what we’re saying? Are we really suffering from stress?
And if we are, what can be done to identify the underlying causes, tackle them, and mitigate the impact? Here, Peter Brown from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), discusses the issues surrounding work-related stress and what organisations can do to manage it.
First things first, what exactly is stress?
At HSE, we define stress as: “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.”
This definition makes a clear distinction between stress and pressure –some commentators call pressure ‘good stress’. Pressure can be motivating; pushing us to go that extra mile, giving us a ‘buzz’ and providing a real sense of achievement when we accomplish the end goal.
That said, when pressure is prolonged or excessive, it no longer feels like a ‘buzz’. When someone is exposed to prolonged pressure, without the chance to recover, they will experience stress and this can potentially lead to serious mental and physical ill-health.
It’s important to note that stress isn’t a condition itself but it has been linked to all kinds of health issues including heart conditions, stroke, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), obesity, and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
How big of a problem is work-related stress in Britain’s workplaces?
The issue of work-related stress across the country’s workplaces is huge; it is one of the two most commonly reported causes of sickness absence in Great Britain.
Our latest statistics on work-related ill-health and injury show in 2016/17 over half a million workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, while 12.5 million working days were lost. The damage work-related stress has on our working population is devastating.
For Britain’s employers, the cost of a workforce suffering from stress is eye-watering.
For example, consider what the working days lost truly means; huge costs for sickness absence payments, costs around lost production, and the expense of either hiring temporary replacement workers to fill the gap or making overtime payments to existing staff. In the longer term, highly stressful jobs lead to difficulties retaining existing employees and cause a higher turnover of staff.
In terms of the wider economy, the cost of work-related stress is even greater – current conservative estimates put this at around £5.2 billion.
And that doesn’t even cover the issue of presenteeism; staff members who are unwell, not functioning at full capacity, nor fully productive, but who go to work anyway. Figures show this can be around one and a half times as expensive than the cost of absenteeism.
Getting the approach right
These statistics show not only why it’s necessary to act but also that it’s important to take the right action.
An industry has built-up around tackling work-related stress; usually focusing on promoting resilience or mindfulness to make people more able to cope.
There’s also a growing emphasis on improving wellbeing – an encouragement to eat well and exercise, to take up yoga, to try alternative medicines such as reiki, or even meditation; these are all designed to promote relaxation and to help destress.
Whilst each of these may provide therapeutic value for an individual, they do not address nor remove existing work stressor(s) and therefore do not, by themselves, provide a solution to work-related stress. If people are simply put back into the same stressful environment they are likely to become stressed again, putting their health in danger.
We have recently launched our Go Home Healthy campaign to promote the work of HSE’s health and work programme and focus efforts on getting employers to take work-related health issues as seriously as they do safety ones.
Work-related stress is one of the campaign’s three primary targets and we are working to promote the proactive measures which can be taken to manage it within Britain’s workplaces.
Just like any other hazard, when it comes to work-related stress, an employer has a legal duty to assess the potential risk, and to take reasonably practicable steps to remove or reduce the risk.
What can be done to manage work-related stress in my organisation?
The most important thing is that you do something – identify whether work-related stress is an issue for your organisation, and then do your best to engage staff and trade unions to come up with solutions to tackle these problems.
HSE developed its Management Standards (MS) approach to help organisations manage work-related stress. These standards cover six key areas of work which, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.
This includes demands (workload, work patterns and the work environment); control (how much say the person has in the way they do their work); support (the encouragement and resources provided by the organisation, line management, and colleagues); relationships (promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour); role (whether people understand their role within the organisation); and change (how organisational change is managed and communicated in the organisation).
Following the approach promotes active discussion with employees to help decide on what practical improvements can be made, and helps employers focus on the underlying causes and their prevention, providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress.
The Management Standards promote organisational solutions to tackle stressors in wider groups but if an individual raises issues don’t assume it’s just an issue for them – do your best to check with others as this may be the tip of an iceberg. Getting to the root of the problem and tackling the cause early may prevent others from being affected.
About Peter Brown
Peter Brown is currently the head of the health and work programme at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Peter’s role is focused on taking forward delivery of the health and work strategy which prioritises work-related stress, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease.