Back in the summer of 2012, an HR Director from a global professional services organisation asked us the question; how are organisations actually dealing with work-related stress? This was in response to her concerns that work-related stress was becoming a growing issue in her organisation.
To answer her question, our consultancy conducted some research amongst senior HR professionals from leading UK and global organisations. This research took the form of a detailed online survey targeted at gathering information on work-related stress and specifically on the ‘size’ of the issue, the main causes and solutions, how work-related stress is measured , who ‘owns’ work-related stress and the extent of policy and budget for dealing with work-related stress.
The findings of this research highlighted very clearly that work-related stress has increased over the past two to three years, with over two thirds of the responding organisations reporting such a rise. This increase is likely to be greater than that reported by HR practitioners given that for many employees, admitting to having work-related stress could be perceived as a risk to their job security or promotion opportunities. Indeed, one fifth of the respondents to the research indicated that they have no idea at all about how big the issue of work-related stress actually is in their organisation.
For many, this widespread increase in work-related stress is hardly surprising given the current work environment of heightened job insecurity and increased pressure to perform. Furthermore, with the main cause of work-related stress being identified as high workload, which can often be the result of people leaving and not being replaced, the link between the current business climate and increased work-related stress becomes clearer.
Despite the increase, work-related stress is only being actively tackled by just under half of the organisations that participated in the survey. Of those that do have a policy in place, only one third have a budget available to allocate resource to work-related stress. For the most part, the policy is only somewhat consistent across different business units and/or countries. This may reflect how for most organisations, any policies on work-related stress are not mainstream policies and instead are dealt with on a local business unit/country/team basis.
Organisational response to work-related stress
Where it is being tackled, employee assistance programmes, changing working conditions or stress management training are the most typical ‘solutions’. Therefore, organisations seem to mostly tackle work-related stress reactively in that it is only tackled once it has become a debilitating issue. An alternative approach, and one that is already being run in Transport for London (one of the participants to the research) would be to invest in training for both employees and managers that is focused on identifying the signs of work-related stress and addressing them before it becomes an issue that needs to be tackled. At Transport for London, an annual health plan has been set up that includes raising awareness of mental health issues, education and training for employees in resilience, and for managers in mental health, awareness and stress management. Crucially, line managers are very much included in this approach and indeed, in order for work-related stress to be tackled before it becomes a debilitating issue, line managers need to have more ownership of work-related stress rather than it being seen as an issue that HR ‘own’, as is the current situation according to the research.
Perhaps one of the reasons for work-related stress not being addressed more widely is that it can be difficult to quantify and measure. In organisations where it is being measured, employee engagement surveys, illness statistics and absenteeism rates are the most commonly used measures. However, illness statistics and absenteeism rates in particular cannot be directly linked to work-related stress as they can mask other issues such as a lack of engagement or motivation. Additionally, they only measure work-related stress once it has become a debilitating issue rather than before it gets to that stage. In our view, conducting a stress audit or stress risk assessment should be the first action point in any strategy to combat work related stress. This will identify whether stress is actually an issue in the organisation. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicator tool is one of the most commonly used tools for assessing the risk of work-related stress1. It is important to highlight that the use of a stress audit must be met with caution as it can only provide a subjective measure of perceived stress within an organisation. It is, therefore, important to combine this data with objective measures such as absenteeism rates and days lost due to sickness as mentioned above.
The cost of stress
Linked to the inherent difficulties in measuring the level of work-related stress is measuring the impact of work-related stress. This can be measured through the impact of illness statistics and absenteeism rates, but what is often ignored is the impact of someone at work who as a result of work-related stress is not working as productively or effectively. Indeed, of the 27 million days lost due to illness in 2011/12, 22.7 million were due to work-related stress. An individual suffering work-related stress can lose an average of 24 days2. Stress costs UK business £3.7 billion a year3. However, this data must be read with some caution because people are now less likely to admit they are stressed due to the current economic climate. Work Foundation spokeswoman, Ksenia Zheltoukhova4, said: “Stress has fallen down the list – people don’t want to say they are stressed because it makes them look weak. In the current economic situation, workers really don’t want to appear weak in case they lose their job, so they will come to work even when they shouldn’t.”
This suggests that stress may be a bigger issue than the statistics show. A study found that the phenomenon of presenteeism (where an individual goes to work regardless of poor health) may actually cost a company more than absenteeism as their productivity can be reduced by 33% or more5. Presenteeism due to mental ill health now costs the UK economy £15.1 billion, compared with £8.4 billion for sickness absence 20126.
Work-related stress is certainly becoming a more prevalent issue, especially due to the continued economic uncertainty. Based on our survey results, initiatives to combat this growing issue appear to be few and far between, with a limited number of policies in place and even less funding to enact the policies. Many policies are reactionary to already present stress issues, instead of being focused on actively tackling a problem before they become an issue. Furthermore, whilst evidence exists that some companies are conducting stress audits, most look more to data relating to absenteeism or sickness days which measure work-related stress once it has been a real issue.
Moving forward, we would like to see work-related stress being tackled more proactively. For this to happen, work-related stress needs to be taken seriously and for investments to be made to equip both HR and line mangers with the tools and support needed to both identify and address work-related stress. This view is shared by the HR Director who commissioned the research whose response was:
“The findings of QCG's research really highlighted how work-related stress is often a recognised issue but is not typically addressed. For us, work-related stress is an issue that shouldn't be ignored and I am continuing to raise awareness of this issue through the implementation of a ‘duty of care’ approach to line manager training. In addition, I am currently reviewing the introduction of stress resilience coaching with our European Works Councils”.
QCG’s survey into work-related stress was conducted in 2012 and is based on the responses from senior HR professionals representing 15 leading UK and global organisations, including FITCH, Jaguar Land Rover, Kantar, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, TNS, Transport for London and Volex.
Vicki Badham is a senior HR Consultant at QCG. She is also a qualified counsellor.
1 Guidi S, Bagnara S, Fichera GP. The HSE indicator tool, psychological distress and work ability. Occupational Medicine (Oxford, England). 2012; 62(3):203-209.
2 Health and Safety Executive. New figure published for workplace ill health and injury. http://www.hse.gov.uk/press/2012/hse-statistics2012.htm. Accessed 14 February 2013.
3 Business Matters. Stress costs UK economy £3.7BN. http://www.bmmagazine.co.uk/news/12807/stress-costs-ukeconomy-3-7bn. Aaccessed 14 February 2013.
4 Mitrefinch. Do falling staff sickness levels signal rise in presenteeism?. http://news.mitrefinch.co.uk/article.aspx?art_id=801366732. Accessed 14 February 2013.
5 Biron C, Brun JP, Ivers H, Cooper C. At work but ill: psychosocial work environment and wellbeing determinants of presenteeism propensity. Journal of Public Medical Health. 2006; 5(4):26-37.
6 Personnel Today. 2012: The year in HR. http://www.personneltodaycom/articles/20/12/2012/59103/2012-the-year-in-hr.htm. Accessed 14 February 2013.