THE LAST STRAW?
The shattering effect of stress in the workplace
STRESS costs us all – as individuals, as businesses and as a state. All the evidence shows that not only does stress take its emotional toll on the individual, their colleagues, friends and family but that, importantly, there is also a significant economic cost.
Estimates vary, but Health & Safety Executive (HSE) figures from 2004 suggest that stress costs British business at least £3.7 billion a year in lost working days. Then there is the cost to the state in terms of healthcare and welfare payments.
Stress is defined – by the HSE – as the adverse reaction that people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them. It is usually talked about under the heading of “mental health” or sometimes “wellbeing”.
It is not surprising then, that organisations are increasingly looking at the issue of workplace wellbeing. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 55% of organisations surveyed for last year’s Absence Management Survey had some form of employee wellbeing strategy in place – up from 33% in 2009.
Looking at stress specifically, research published last month by Towers Watson, the professional services company, found that over 40% of employers already had stress management programmes in place and an additional 31% plan to introduce them in the next two years.
Rebekah Haymes, senior consultant at Towers Watson, explains: “Our research focuses on what employers are doing and we are seeing wellbeing becoming a more business-led initiative. We think that, among other things, absence costs are being addressed more closely and employers are seeing their stress-related claims are increasing.”
She says that the current focus for many employers is on help at the point of need with employee assistance programmes (EAPs) very popular. “In future, employers do foresee emphasising prevention, particularly with regard to managing stress levels. So we see a shift – not away from EAPs as there will always be a role for an EAP – but a lot of employers are starting to think about what else they can do because EAPs aren’t preventing stress, they are just alleviating it when it does happen.”
Haymes points to three areas of change. She sees more information and education, both about wellbeing in general and for managers on how to spot and deal with stress. There are also changes in absence management, with previously out-sourced services being brought in-house and a growth in “resilience training”.
“We’re seeing resilience training being delivered at various levels [not just for high-profile, high-pressure roles] to help employees cope with their roles. So it’s making sure you are putting people into the right roles and then giving those employees the support they need to deliver those roles.”
An established avenue to reducing stress is exercise. A study by healthcare charity, Nuffield Health and the London School of Economics, suggests that over £7 billion could be saved if each person in the UK took the government’s recommended amount of exercise (which is 150 minutes a week). The £7 million is calculated from the costs associated with NHS treatments, welfare and loss of earnings.
“Health benefits for active people are priceless, but with increased pressures both in the workplace and at home, as well as the struggling economy, we, as employers have a responsibility to help our workforce to be as resilient, fit and well as possible,” says Dr Andrew Jones, Nuffield’s managing director of corporate wellbeing. “Our research shows the positive impact of regular physical activity on many health measures, but importantly on mental health,” he adds.
The taboo around stress in the workplace is something else which also has to be overcome. “Very often we see people who present with musculoskeletal problems, such as a bad back, and actually it is stress related. Where you can go off with a cold or bad back, you can’t be off with stress,” says Sarah Marsh, a physiotherapist and head of fitness and wellbeing at Nuffield.
She points to the pressure – in these times of austerity – on employees to be seen to be at work and the rise of what has been termed “presenteeism”. This culture of going to work when sick is highlighted in the CIPD 2012 Absence Management Survey which recorded that average level of employee absence has fallen, but at the same time almost a third of employers reported an increase in the number of people going into work ill.
Marsh says that looking at the whole picture is important. “We have physiologists who do health assessments for us and they are very good at talking about changing behaviour; looking at diet and its impact on stress, sleep and its impact, and looking at stress responses.” For corporate clients, Nuffield might be responsible for arranging a range of services from medical care through traditional fitness facilities to relaxation-based therapies.
However, there is still some way to go: while care pathways for things such as RSI are well established, those for mental health are less comprehensive. “Companies say we know you are right, but we need you to prove it. It’s chicken and egg: corporate clients love to see a pilot and its data. We are looking at how we are able to come back to clients with some sort of return on investment to help persuade them that they should look at mental health more closely.”
Sarah Marsh at Nuffield highlights the pressure of ‘presenteeism’