Managing Stress in the Workplace: Avoidance & Help

24th October 2014

As employers we go out of our way to make the workplace as safe as possible. As well as fulfilling our legal responsibilities we’re also keeping our staff as safe as possible from predictable risks.

Unfortunately, the concept seems to be harder to put into action when it comes to stress. But should it be? There are steps employers can take to protect their employees from the effects of stress.

Those of you who feel that stress doesn’t affect you as an employer might be swayed by the statistics. According to Professor Sir Cary Cooper of business psychologists Robertson Cooper, two thirds of all days lost to sickness have their roots in stress:

“Stress is now the leading cause of sickness absence, and this is a conservative measure because colds, injuries, backache etc. can have a stress aetiology. The important thing to do is for organisations to identify the underlying source of the stress manifestation e.g. a bullying boss, overload, long hours etc., and then do something about them before they lead to serious mental or physical ill health.”

In a piece for NHS Choices, Professor Cooper interestingly points out that small amounts of stress can actually be good for business in that they can increase productivity, motivate staff and improve performance. It works in much the same way as nerves and adrenalin can improve the performance of a sports team. But it’s when levels become high or a low level is sustained over a long period that problems can start to occur and show.

Indeed, Jonathan Brown, author of Stress and Success: Fast Fixes for Turbulent Times puts it better: “The only people without stress are dead!” His Twitter feed (@jonasanbrown) is a go-to list of actionable and largely optimistic information. Brown himself was affected by burnout when he was working in the financial sector, but bases his knowledge largely on his own experiences.

Stress: An Expensive Issue

In her Annual Report produced in September 2014, the NHS’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies put some stark figures on the issue:

  • 70 million working days are lost to mental illness
  • The cost to the economy is in the region of £70–100bn
  • 75% of people with mental illness that is diagnosable get no treatment

Some Online Stress Management Resources

A snapshot of the problem can be found at the charity Anxiety UK’s Twitter feed (@AnxietyUK). Along with links to articles and general advice, the feed retweets those who mention the account in their own accounts. Every few hours they’ll retweet someone’s tweet about an anxiety attack they’ve had if it mentions the charity specifically. Many more are no doubt tweeting without mentioning the charity, and this number is no doubt dwarfed by those suffering in silence.

Mind also has a great Twitter feed which is a useful resource to follow if you think you might be stressed. If nothing else, it’s reassurance that you’re not alone and there are plenty of others in the same boat. Celebrities often open up here too; it’s somehow reassuring to know that people who have the world at their feet are not immune – there’s a common misconception that depression is “sadness” or “dissatisfaction with life” and that stress is “tiredness”.

It’s a truism that people are more open about conditions we have from the neck down than we are about mental health issues. We’ll let our employers and loved ones know about them and maybe become active campaigners and fundraisers for the issues. But even in 2014 when we have much greater understanding about mental health, there’s a tendency to keep our problems under wraps, often through fear that it will affect our careers or that people will treat us differently. Anxiety UK’s feed is one small step towards normalising these conditions in the public eye, and the bravery of those opening up about their conditions cannot be understated.

Things Might be Getting Better – if We Keep Working on it

But some experts believe the outlook is promising, despite the hurdles we have to cross. In March 2013, Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool, gave a talk to South East Thames’ Division of Clinical Psychology AGM. He presented an optimistic view about what clinical psychology will be like in 2023. He supported the EU’s definition of mental health as: “a resource which enables them to realise their intellectual and emotional potential and to find and fulfil their roles in social, school and working life”, which he saw as a good basis on which clinical psychology professionals could measure goals and successes. He cited the fact that psychologists’ demands in 1989 for more professionals to cope with growing demand, recognition and treatability were more than doubled as evidence that understanding at governmental level was improving.

Eighteen months after he made this speech, we asked Professor Kinderman whether he remained optimistic about the trajectory of clinical psychology. He replied, “I think we’re moving in the right direction, and we’re living in interesting time, but we’ve a long journey and an uphill struggle ahead. As I set out in ‘a prescription for psychiatry’, a genuinely humane and effective approach to psychological health would be quite different to the status quo. We’d see a rejection of the ‘disease-model’ of old-fashioned and ineffective psychiatry and a move away from a reliance on medication as a slick pseudo-solution.

“Instead, we’d understand how people are responding to, making sense of, and are affected by the experiences in their lives, and offering social and psychological approaches – residential or crisis care, real social intervention and, where necessary, evidence-based psychological therapies. We’re moving in that direction, and that’s welcome.

“We’ve seen increasingly positive and inclusive language (Lord Freud’s remarks notwithstanding), more investment in psychological therapies, and much greater understanding by politicians, business leaders and the general public that our psychological health is something we can understand in ordinary human terms, something we can address with straightforward psychological and social solutions, and that it’s clearly in our best interests, as individuals, communities, societies and businesses, to work together to that end. But, as I said, while we’re going in that direction … we’ve a long way to go.”

So it is in the interests of the business community to start appreciating stress, listening to employees in a sensitive way and acting on issues raised. If the human element doesn’t prick business’s sensibilities, the costs should. But we all have a stake in this – stress can build up over many years and employees might carry it over several employers. That’s why a universal recognition – with help from government, charities and business groups – is essential. Let’s hope Kinderman’s optimism isn’t misplaced.