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Stress – the 21st Century Epidemic?


By Jenny Gould of the STP Consultancy

Stress is wreaking havoc in UK businesses, and new government initiatives mean that employers are going to have to start taking their responsibilities more seriously.

The UK Health and Safety Executive, has now set targets for companies to reduce days lost due to work related sickness by 30 per cent by the year 2010, and is working with partners such as the International Stress Management Association to get the message across that stress is a serious hazard. In 2003 inspectors will begin checking that companies are complying with their legal responsibilities regarding stress, and that they are implementing the new government guidelines. Where they find breaches of duty, criminal proceedings can be instigated.

Aside from the legal obligations, stress is fast becoming the biggest risk to business today. Around 75 per cent of all visits to the family doctor are due to stress and the latest research shows that two-thirds of all employees in the UK are suffering from work related stress –up from half in 2001. What’s more, it seems that most companies are completely unaware of the extent of the problem - they need to understand why people are off sick. As a rule of thumb, it is estimated that a massive 60 per cent of sickness absence costs are due to stress. When you think about it in relation to your own business, it soon begins to hit home!

So stress causes ill health - both mental and physical. It also has a negative effect on performance and productivity, reduces commitment and loyalty to the company, and damages relationships both at work and at home. Valuable employees start leaving, and as word gets around it becomes increasingly difficult to attract good people. Then there is a real possibility of expensive legal action being taken against you, which aside from the financial cost, can seriously damage your reputation.

“But stress is good for you!” I hear someone say. Actually no – there is no such thing as ‘good’ stress. While pressure is what challenges and motivates us, stress is always negative. We grow and thrive on the right amount of pressure, but when this becomes excessive – when we feel we don’t have the resources to cope with it – then the boundary into stress is crossed. All the research points to the fact that prolonged stress can lead to considerable health problems, so it is in everyone’s interest that we do something about it.

Symptoms vary considerably from person to person and include physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms - such as a weakening of the immune system leading to frequent infections, colds and allergies; headaches, muscular tension and digestion problems; inability to concentrate and procrastinating over important projects; anxiety and panic attacks; irritability and ‘rage’ incidents. Sufferers may also experience difficulty sleeping, have low self-esteem, and become cynical, withdrawn and depressed.

Stress is insidious and the secret is to catch it early, before it becomes a serious issue. So what can you do about it? Managers need to understand their responsibilities – they need to be trained to carry out stress risk assessments, know how to identify stress in their staff, and above all what to do about it. This may well highlight the need for changes in working practices, management style, company culture and so on. Stress seminars, workshops and coaching sessions can be used to educate employees in stress awareness and to teach them effective strategies for reducing it. In a recent stress case, the court of appeal emphasised the importance of offering help to employees experiencing stress.

No company can afford to ignore the problem and a proactive approach can make the difference between the success and failure of a business - the successful employers are the ones who are responding to the challenge of creating a healthy, happy (and therefore more productive) workforce.

Now is a good time to start taking the issue seriously. Are you doing enough?

Jenny Gould FIMS MISMA MIHPE, of Stressing the Positive in Abingdon, is a stress management consultant, trainer and coach. Go to for ideas on developing a stress management strategy for your company, and for more information on the services offered by STP.