Recession means tackling workplace stress has never been more important

As the number of people seeking hospital treatment for stress rises due to the prolonged period of economic uncertainty in the UK, it has never been more important for managers to be able to identify and tackle a problem which costs the economy millions of pounds a year.

Admissions rates, published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, show the number of people in England seeking hospital treatment for stress has risen seven per cent in the past year. In particular, those of working age are under too much emotional and mental pressure as the country faces a period of extended uncertainty caused by the double-dip recession.

The problem is not just costing the NHS through expensive hospital treatment which could have been more effectively dealt with in primary care, but businesses are losing millions through absent staff and poor productivity.

Sheena Johnson, Occupational Psychologist and senior lecturer at Manchester Business School, said: “Major cuts in jobs and resources across both the public and private sectors, together with more and more outsourcing, means that, stress is becoming an increasingly common problem in most workplaces.

“The causes of stress change from person to person, and from job to job, but research shows that one key issue is often around control.

“Yet as we move further away from our own internal markets, towards more complex economic systems - organisations and individuals alike will find they have less and less control over many aspects of their business life.

“The challenge therefore is to identify where staff are feeling this lack of control most acutely, then where possible work to change their roles to increase control which should have a positive effect on both productivity and wellbeing. Supporting individuals in this way can help managers get the most out of those affected.”

Despite measures to tackle historically dismissive attitudes, stress is still a major consideration for businesses: contributing to high staff turnover, leaving workers too physically unwell to work, or leading to underperformance and poor productivity – all of which cost the economy millions. Indeed, it is estimated that a typical organisation in the UK with 1000 staff can save as much as £250,000 a year by effectively managing mental health at work. The biggest challenge for managers in dealing with stress in the workplace lies in understanding and identifying the problem in the first place.

Dr Johnson said: “The first steps for any organisation is to conduct a stress audit and identify stressed groups. Knowing who is affected by stress means an organisation can involve affected groups in finding solutions thus intervening and tackling the problem at its cause. This will help employees and also help the organisation to perform more successfully.

“Steps organisations might take range from changing people’s job roles to ‘design out’ sources of stress; giving individuals greater control over their career development; supporting individuals to cope with the demands they face and counselling those who have suffered serious ill health with a view to improving their psychological wellbeing.

How they do this will change from business to business, but one thing is certain: as organisations emerge from recession into a post-downturn world, issues of wellbeing at work will continue to challenge managers for years to come.