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November 4, 2015

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Pressure release: prevention-led stress management

It’s estimated that workplace stress, anxiety and depression contribute to around 40 per cent of all absences for illness and injury at an annual cost to the UK economy of more than £1bn. Dr Roxane Gervais explores a preventative approach to stress management.

First Choice - Stess LevelsIt might be classed as a ‘state’ rather than a medical condition, but stress, if not dealt with sufficiently quickly, can pave the way to psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression or physical conditions such as headaches, muscular tension or heart disease.

While healthcare, education and public administration are among those identified as presenting the highest levels of stress, it occurs throughout other industry sectors.

What is stress?

HSE defines stress as: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”

It’s important to note that there is a distinction between ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’. Pressure can be positive and motivational, helping to drive better performance and accomplish goals. Stress arises when pressure becomes excessive; it is a natural reaction to too much pressure.

HSE-conducted research identified a number of psychosocial risks within the work environment that could increase employees’ stress levels. These include – but aren’t limited to – having a lack of control in the way a job is carried out, poor work relationships, having insufficient support, a heavy workload, or being unclear about the requirements of the role.

Under health and safety legislation, employers have a legal responsibility towards employees to ensure their health, safety and welfare at work; this includes minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury. The reasons for this are clear; according to HSE’s statistics [1], in the year 2013/14:

* Workers took 11.3 million working days as sickness absence, which were due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression, with an average of 23 days per case of stress, depression or anxiety.

* Over one-third (39 per cent) of individuals who suffered from work-related illnesses noted that this was in respect of stress, depression or anxiety.

* 487,000 out of 1,241,000 cases of work-related illnesses were due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

* The number of new cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression was 244,000.

Due to its adverse impact on employee health and the economic and social burden it represents, workplace stress and its effective management are issues taken seriously by HSE and its Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL).

‘Presenteeism’: an unwanted by-product

Stress is the single largest contributor to workplace absence. It’s also the elephant in the room. According to the mental health charity MIND, almost one-in-five-people (19 per cent) take a day’s sick absence because of stress, yet of those people 90 per cent cited a different reason for their absence.

Despite the seriousness and size of the issue, it seems that employees are unwilling to admit that they are suffering from a stress-related illness. The reasons given for this are varied; for example, employees may feel that they will be disbelieved by their manager, mocked by colleagues or that taking time off because of stress will somehow earn them a ‘black mark’ against their employment record.

This reluctance to take sick absence in order to recover from stress-related illnesses results in ‘presenteeism’, a phenomenon discussed in the 2007 report into workplace stress conducted by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.

Presenteeism, in its simplest form, is the act of attending work despite being unwell and therefore unable to perform a role effectively. As with stress-related sickness absence, presenteeism has a significant impact upon productivity and the economy.

The Sainsbury report finds: “£15.1bn a year in reduced productivity at work: ‘Presenteeism’ accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism and costs more to employers because it is more common among higher-paid staff.”

Management standards for stress: proactively tackling work-related stress

One of the problems facing employers who wish to manage workplace stress is that, unlike physical health and safety hazards which can be easy to identify and address, stress remains something of an ‘unknown quantity’ but is no less important.

To combat this issue, HSE devised management standards, which help employers to measure their performance in managing the key causes of stress at work and to identify areas for improvement. The standards support organisations to tackle work-related stress through interventions at the primary level.

The management standards cover six key areas of work design: demands; control; support; relationships; role; and change. Each of these areas represents a primary source of stress that, if not managed appropriately, is associated with poor health and wellbeing, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.

The management standards approach helps simplify risk assessment for work- related stress by:

* identifying the main risk factors for work-related stress;

* helping employers focus on the underlying causes and their prevention; and

* providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress.

They are essentially a step-by-step risk assessment approach.

By helping employers to identify the main risk factors and underlying causes of stress and to address them accordingly, the management standards represent a set of conditions that, if present, reflect a high level of health, well-being and organisational performance. Evidence shows that “good work is good for you” (Waddell and Burton, 2006).

Furthermore, case studies from the companies that HSL has worked with to implement this preventative approach to stress management show that it can deliver a significant return on investment. Typically, an organisation will benefit from a reduction in staff absences and their associated costs, improved employee morale, motivation and productivity, and an enhanced reputation as an employer that cares about the health, safety and welfare of its employees.

Further insights

The stress management experts at HSE’s Health and Safety Laboratory intend to promote tackling work-related stress at a series of talks, events and exhibitions over the coming year.

Anyone keen to address this important issue in their own organisation should come along to find out how taking proactive measures to prevent stress can save time and money and sustain a happy and productive workforce.

Dr Roxane Gervais is a chartered psychologist who works at the Health and Safety Laboratory

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