Suzy is a highly effective Business Psychologist, and Owner of a new business psychology consultancy, Dale & Associates. For more than 15 years Suzy worked as an Occupational Psychologist for Civil Service departments. During this time she supported leaders by devising and implementing coaching and mentoring schemes, and providing evidence-based advice relating to employee engagement, stress and absenteeism and cultural change management.
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There’s been a plethora of commentary about workplace stress recently, mainly as a result of the CIPD and Simplyhealth survey which showed that stress is now the top cause of sickness absence in theUK. This has been on the horizon for some time, and now with the compounding influence of rising living costs, wage freezes and fears over job security, it’s hit the number one spot.
The ideal of course for organisations is that staff are happy, healthy and here (ie in the workplace!),
The financial cost to the nation as a result of stress-related sickness absence runs into billions of pounds a year according to HSE. However, I believe that behind this figure lies three hidden truths.
Hidden truth 1: Presenteeism
The first hidden truth is presenteeism. While being absent from work while ill (absenteeism) is well documented, presenteeism (defined as showing up for work when ill), has received scant interest in recent years despite the fact that research suggests that presenteeism might cause more aggregate productivity loss than absenteeism itself (Johns, 2009). Could it be though that organisations are choosing to overlook this, preferring their employees to come into work, even when ill, than to not turn up at all?
Hidden truth 2: Measurement
The second hidden truth is to do with the measurement of workplace stress. I say this for three rather contradictory reasons.
1. There is still a stigma attached to stress, meaning that some would prefer to keep quiet about their symptoms at work in the fear that if they were to admit to experiencing stress, they would be viewed as weak, jeopardise their status, promotion opportunities and so on. And because stress is not as obviously visible as the other HSE-regulated illnesses/injuries which can occur in a workplace, it can go unnoticed. This undoubtedly leads to under-reporting.
2. Stress data is also likely to be skewed by a minority of long-term cases of individuals who have claimed to be suffering from long-term stress in the knowledge that once an employee declares themselves to be off with stress, the absence can be extremely protracted and can lead to significant pay-outs at industrial tribunal.
3. Measurement tools. Traditional stress audits form an important part of an organisational risk assessment for identifying and measuring work-related stress. However, unless they incorporate a measure of stress which is brought into the workplace from home life, they are failing to depict the true state of stress caused by the workplace. While recognising that it is difficult to disaggregate the two, and that often there is a symbiotic relationship between stress at home and stress at work, why should managers and their organisations have to cop it the whole lot?!.
Hidden truth 3: Human cost
The third hidden truth concerns the human cost of stress, which is much more difficult to quantify, and tends to receive far less attention than financial cost. Just when you were thinking that I am entirely on the side of the organisation, I assure that that I am not. My personal experience of working with employees legitimately suffering from stress has weighed heavily on me. Besides the impact of stress-related illnesses, I have been struck in particular by experience conducting staff stress interviews, during which it emerged that staff had been making attempts at taking their own lives. However, it appears they were following a growing trend – in a study examining the effects of the recession on health published in July, the Lancet reported that the UK had seen a rise of 8% in working-age suicide rates from 2007-9.
So where do we go from here?
Clearly there is a need to strip stress naked – to destigmatise so that those genuinely suffering can stand up, be counted, and be helped back to good health. This includes those in senior positions. I applaud the recent acknowledgement that Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of Lloyds banking group, had been signed off work for medical reasons, reportedly stress and “extreme fatigue”.
There is equally a need for organisations to tighten HR policies and to become a demanding partner in the GP, Occupational Health, HR case management relationship so that those tempted to hide under the stress banner can no longer do so.
We also need to develop tools with surgical precision to measure work-related stress. These need to pinpoint as accurately as possible the extent of stress which can be attributed directly to workplace causes.
Finally, having done so, we need to equip individuals with coping mechanisms through a package of interventions including resilience training so that when, in the current climate, they are faced with an almost inevitably pressurised environment, they have the ability to remain happy, healthy and here.
Johns, G. (2009). Presenteeism in the workplace: A review and research agenda Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31 (4), 519-542 DOI: 10.1002/job.630
Stuckler D, Basu S, Suhrcke M et al. Effects of the 2008 recession on health: a first look at European data. The Lancet, Volume 378, Issue 9786, Pages 124-125, 9 July 2011