Stress tested to destruction?

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Adam Bernstein investigates the impacts of stress, and looks at how companies can manage the issue for their staff

While a certain level of stress in our lives is important just to function, it was Reverend W. J. Kennedy who, in 1856, as the Inspector of Schools for Lancashire and the Isle of Man, identified that “…if you want any business done for you, you should ask a busy man…”


That may be true, but the problem for some is that the relationship between busyness and stress is too incestuous. Too much stress and our human frailties are thrown into sharp relief; too little and we relax. So, what is the right level of stress and what can employer and employee alike do to reduce the threat to an individual’s wellbeing?

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According to Neil Shah, Chief De-Stressing Officer at the Stress Management Society, a non-profit organisation that offers help and advice on managing stress, the matter of poor mental health has risen toward the top of many an agenda. He points to data compiled in October 2018 by the HSE which found that, in 2017/2018, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health. “Worryingly,” he said, “the problem has grown more acute over the last 10 years to the point that 15.4m days were lost in 2017/2018 compared to just over 13m in 2007/2008.”

Andrew Rayment, a partner at Walker Morris LLP, agrees with Neil. He thinks that there is an important conversation to be had about mental health in the workplace as “each year workplace mental health issues cost the UK economy almost £35bn.” He cites an open letter written in November 2018 to the government from the leaders of more than 50 of the UK’s largest employers urging amendments to health and safety legislation so that it covers mental health. The signatories called on the government to ensure that employers are required to make provision for mental as well as physical first aid.

But just as those employers have pressured the government, Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, said that over 1,000 organisations have signed up to the Time to Change organisational pledge: “This year more than 100 employers from various sectors will take part in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index, a benchmark of best policy and practice.”

She added that for some the pressure is too much. She referred to a government-commissioned review, Thriving at Work, which in 2017 “revealed that 300,000 people experiencing mental health problems lose their jobs each year.” She did add: “It’s hard to tell whether poor mental health in the workplace is on the rise, employers are better capturing it, or perhaps staff are being more open about mental health and stress at work.”

The causes
More statistics are hard to avoid. HSE figures see the causes as primarily workload (44%), lack of support (14%), violence, threats or bullying (13%), changes at work (8%), and other (21%). This last category as a ‘catch-all’ is quite large and Neil thinks it relates to a combination of technological and financial pressures.

Looking at the former, he said that “this is partly down to the ‘always on call’ culture that has become the new normal in many workplaces and beyond,” a problem made worse by remote access with the concomitant obligation to be available on demand.

It’s of note that in January 2017 the French gained a new ‘right to disconnect’ where companies with more than 50 workers are obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct that sets out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that change is coming. “We are undoubtedly seeing a shift in attitude towards mental health that is both societal and governmental,” said Andrew. He recalled a move from the government, in October 2018, where it appointed a Suicide Prevention Minister in recognition of the fact that the number of people taking their own life had reached unacceptable levels (the Samaritans recorded 5,821 suicides in the UK in 2017).

Emma threw more to the mix. She said that when it comes to workplaces, every organisation has its own unique challenges and pressures: “There are lots of factors associated with stress and poor wellbeing, such as poorly-defined roles and responsibilities, poor relationships with managers and colleagues, excessive workload, unrealistic targets or deadlines and long working hours.”

Legal perspective
It’s critical to understand that employers owe a legal duty of care to their staff to provide a safe place of work and that includes ensuring mental health as well as physical health.

The statistics earlier point out the size of the mental health problem which needs fixing. Yes, there may be costs involved in ensuring that staff are not subjected to undue stress but, in the long run, Andrew suggested: “Looking after employees’ mental health can save money and give a company a competitive edge as a good employer.”

Emma agreed: “Analysis by Deloitte as part of the Thriving at Work employment review found that employers should see a return on investment of between £1.50 and £9 for every £1 invested.”

And to drive the point home, the HSE recently updated its first aid guidance for employers to emphasise the benefits of training staff to recognise whether colleagues are suffering from poor mental health.


Advice for employees unable to cope
As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. For this reason, Neil said: “It is really important that employees do not struggle alone; we know that some employees will not want to speak about this at work.”

In this situation the Stress Society recommends staff have (free) access to confidential services – Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) – if provided by the employer.

But Emma noted that while EAPs can be useful: “The downside is that because they are confidential, an employer won’t necessarily be aware that someone is struggling and therefore be able to provide additional support.”

For those wishing to make their concerns known to their employer, Neil’s advice is for worried staff to speak to their line manager, but beforehand, they should prepare for the conversation by writing a list – “this way they will be sure that everything they want to discuss is covered and that they won’t lose their train of thought as the conversation progresses.”

Emma endorses the view that employees suffering should be taking time off work, just as someone would for physical health problems. “Smart employers,” she said, “should keep lines of communication open while someone’s off and discuss things like ‘phased returns’ – gradually coming back to work – if needed.” Other options include seeking advice from Acas, Mind’s Legal Line, the Stress Society, or a union representative.

For employers
A number of court cases have established that if an employer becomes aware that an employee is suffering from mental health issues in the workplace it must consider how best to address the situation.

On this, Andrew said employers should arrange a meeting with the employee to establish causes and what might alleviate the problem. “In some cases,” he added, “it may be necessary to refer the individual to an occupational health advisor. The key is to keep talking to the employee and keep an open mind.”

He also said to consider that “if the employee’s mental health condition has a significant adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal daily activities then it might classify as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.”

Employers ought to take note: claims for disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 can be costly and have reputational consequences. Back in 1995, in Walker v Northumberland County Council, a worker settled out of court for £175,000 after a senior social worker who suffered two nervous breakdowns sought compensation for work related stress.

From his position, Neil takes a more pragmatic approach. While he agrees with Andrew that mental health must be taken seriously, employers should be asking employees for opinions. “People often feel stress when they are powerless over their job content. So, if change is required, consult those involved so they can have a say in work-related decisions,” he said.

It’s important to remember that healthy workplaces benefit the entire workforce, whether they have a mental health problem or not. Sensible employers, said Emma, put in place Wellness Action Plans (which are available free from Mind’s website). “These are useful tools to help start conversations about mental health between managers and their direct reports; they help identify unique triggers for poor mental health.”

In conclusion
Ultimately, ignoring mental health issues in the workplace only serves to make them worse. By not addressing issues employers may see a decrease in productivity, output and an increase in absenteeism or even presenteeism. In some instances, it may even result in loss of life.