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July 9, 2009

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Fitting everything together

Stress in the workplace is a complex issue. It is intangible and thus can sometimes be difficult to recognise and assess, but it is a very real problem and can become an expensive and time-consuming one. Simon Lubacz explains how one UK company is pulling out all the stops to ensure its employees don’t suffer in silence and instead enjoy a healthy work-life balance.

Work-related stress affects a huge number of employees in the UK. According to the 2006/07 Labour Force Survey,1 some 530,000 people felt they were suffering from work-related stress that was having an effect on their health. Obviously, it was also having an effect on their ability to work properly because the same survey says about 13.8 million working days were lost during that period as a result of stress-like symptoms. The average cost of absence through sickness is as high as £659 per employee per year,2 a figure that underlines just how important it is for employers to look after the mental as well as physical health of workers.

Of course, a degree of workplace stress is inevitable but it affects individuals in different ways. Whereas some thrive on stress and find it stimulating because it drives them on to achieve more, others are worn down by it to the point where it has a detrimental effect not only on their working but also their personal lives.

So it makes sense for companies and organisations to rate dealing with workplace stress of equal importance to managing the physical risks to employees. They need to be proactive rather than reactive, and develop and implement effective strategies to recognise and cope with stress-related problems as soon as they appear — or, preferably, devise procedures that will prevent them occurring in the first place. These should focus on helping staff to feel motivated, valued and supported, and on their well-being so they can achieve a good work-life balance.

Stellar support
One company which has done exactly that is W. L. Gore & Associates, manufacturers of GORE-TEX® fabrics, based in Livingston and Dundee. The company’s Work-Life Balance Initiative (WLB), which was instigated by its own associates in 2005, is concerned with achieving fitness for body and mind, and provides a wide range of support services for company personnel.

Gore defines work-life balance as ‘when everything fits together’. It believes that commercial success can only be achieved through the dedication of its associates and their enthusiasm for team work. Its aim is for all associates to grow and develop within their commitments while at the same time enjoying a fulfilled private life.

To this end, WLB includes measures such as ‘trust-based working time’, which allows associates to work virtually as they please, as long as they perform the volume of work laid out in the contract of employment. Gore also pays attention to the working environment, including ergonomic issues, aiming to create a situation in which associates feel at ease, and which encourages creativity and communication.

Another key element of WLB, ‘Take time to focus on yourself’, works on the premise   that prevention is better than cure. Gore provides health promotion initiatives such as help to stop smoking, healthy backs training courses, and exercise breaks. The company is developing other health improving activities together with company doctors and health and safety experts. In addition, Gore offers a range of sports, absorbing most of the costs, and as part of its Healthy Eating Programme more than 50 per cent of food in its canteens is now organic.  

Recognising that parents find it difficult to balance family and work commitments, Gore contributes to the cost of day nurseries and child minders, and there is also a one-week summer camp for children aged sxi-14 in some regions.

Gore provides support ‘when things get too much’ via its Associate Assist Programme which enables associates — and family members living in the same household — to seek professional, confidential and independent counselling in the event of work-related or personal problems. It also encourages creative leisure-time activities, which range from dance to staging theatre productions and attending cultural events.  

Gore’s Work Life Balance Initiative, by associates for associates, is a great example of how companies can proactively help minimise stress in the workplace and protect the well-being of employees, and is one of the reasons why it was voted number one in The Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007- the first company to stay top of the list for four years in succession.

1    HSE (2008) Self-reported work-related stress illness and workplace injuries 2006/07 — Results from the Labour Force Survey
2    Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) (2007) Absence management: Survey Report

Simon Lubacz is workwear associate with W.L. Gore and Associates (UK) Ltd  — for more information, visit

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.

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