Research has shown that last week was the most stressful five working days of the corporate calendar. This was mainly due as many employees left for holidays leaving their colleagues struggling to cover for them.

Research conducted by Sovereign Health Care of more than 2,000 employees revealed that just under a third of employees reckon to suffer from increased stress when their colleagues were on holiday. In fact, the only thing staff dread more than having to cover for their colleagues is losing their jobs completely.

Given that 51% of respondents complain that they are already feeling more stressed at work than they did a year ago, this isn’t helping reduce the burden on the HR Director – especially when another alarming statistic is taken into account. Around 60% of respondents believe their employer is providing minimal or less than the legal requirement for support around work-related stress. This way lawsuits lie…

“Stress is a complex issue which can manifest itself in different ways, making it difficult for managers to identify and manage in the workplace,” argues Russ Piper, Sovereign Health Care chief executive. “However, a failure to do so could lead to employees developing further health problems and having to take time off work, which can cause remaining staff even more stress.

“This time of year is naturally more hectic with parents preparing for the schools breaking up and juggling childcare, and businesses having to manage the increasing number of people taking leave. Therefore it’s even more important that employers step up the well-being support they provide for employees to try and help ease some of the additional burden.

“It is no longer enough for organisations to expect their employees to just get on with the job regardless of the issues they are facing. Providing cost effective well-being support to your employees could well be the best investment you make this year.”

Avoiding the problem?

While HR Directors are on the front line in trying to manage such situations, it seems that all too many organisations aren’t taking the matter seriously, even though employers have an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to take appropriate steps to identify and manage stress at work.

In reality, research by Legal & General – using Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics and reports – suggests that less than a fifth of employers take adequate steps to provide support for stressed employees.

“These figures show that employers should ensure that good quality support is available in the workplace to help employees,” says Diane Buckley, Managing Director of Legal & General Group Income Protection “It is concerning that 83% of employers have no provisions in place to deal with stress related illnesses.”

The new DWP Survey, Health and well-being at work: a survey of employers, shows that only 17% of employers have any form of stress management advice and support in place despite the fact that short-term stress-related absences topped 42,000 in the three months to December last year.

Elsewhere the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) absence management annual survey report recently highlighted that stress is the second biggest cause of short term absences and one of the leading cause of all long-term absences for non-manual workers.

According to the CIPD study:
Over a third of employers reported that stress-related absence has increased over the past year.
The top causes of stress at work are workloads, external relationships, organisational change/ restructuring and management styles.
The public sector is taking a lead with eight out of ten public service employers taking steps to identify and reduce stress in the workplace compared with about half of private sector employers.
The report notes: “Organisational change/restructuring was a particularly common top cause of stress in the public services sector as has been found in previous years. Whether this is due to more ineffective management of organisational change in the public sector, or whether it is a result of being subject to more political changes is not clear.”

Not everyone’s to blame

It’s not fair to say that stress is being entirely overlooked by organisations, with three out of five respondents (61%) saying that their employer is taking steps to identify and reduce stress in the workplace. The report argues: “Larger organisations were most likely to be taking action to manage stress. Fewer than half of employers with fewer than 50 employees were taking steps to identify and reduce workplace stress, compared with about three-quarters of
those with 1,000–4,999 employees and 88% of those with more than 5,000 staff.

That said, what can employers and HR personnel do to tackle this issue. It’s apparent from the CIPD research that there are a range of standard options available, including:
staff surveys
training for managers and/or staff
risk assessments
employee assistance programmes
flexible working options
improved work–life balance