Who’s Stressed Out? Part 1: Endemic or Epidemic?

Who’s Stressed Out? Part 1: Endemic or Epidemic?

  • Date: Tuesday 15th April 2008

‘Stress’ is a word that can strike fear into the heart of any employer. In 1983 Time magazine referred to stress as the ‘epidemic of the 80’s’. Between 1990 and 2006 the rate of self reported work related stress almost doubled. Between 2006 and 2007 the HSE calculated that 13.8 million days were lost to work related stress, depression and anxiety. This translates into an estimated cost to UK business of 370 million pounds per year, and to the economy as a whole, a staggering 3.8 billion pounds per year.

What is Stress
In recent years \\\'stressed out\\\' has become a common term used to replace other emotion adjectives. Instead of feeling annoyed, worried or apprehensive, we declare that we are feeling \\\'stressed out\\\'. Misconceptions as to the nature and seriousness of stress have contributed to a stigma becoming attached to the condition. The HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to pressure and other types of demand placed on them’. The truth is, when we feel pressured hormonal and chemical defence mechanisms are triggered in the body. This has become known as the ‘fight or flight’ response which can manifest itself in any of the following ways:

Memory problems  
Poor judgement  
Negative attitude  
Lack of concentration 
Constant worrying  

Short tempered
Feeling overwhelmed
Inability to relax
Feeling tense

High blood pressure
Heart conditions
Weight loss
Frequent colds
Skin complaints

Eating disorders
Sleeping disorders
Nervous habits
Overdoing activities
Over reacting
Increased alcohol usage and drug usage
Neglecting responsibilities

Top Ten Workplace Stressors
Stress at work can cost companies dear due to increased absenteeism, lack of enthusiasm for the job, poor performance, and bad workplace attitude. A recent survey led to the following top ten workplace stresses being identified. Do you recognise any of these?

1. Lack of control over participation in, or outcome of, work.
2. Too much to do and too many responsibilities, leading to a ‘treadmill’ effect.
3. Mistrust, unfairness and office politics due to bad management.
4. Random interruptions such as telephone calls, walk-in visits and general demands of others.
5. Constant unsatisfactorily explained or unannounced change, leading to uncertainty.
6. Lack of clear policy, procedures and focus causing uncertainty.
7. Career / job ambiguity, causing a feeling of helplessness and being out of control.
8. Lack of positive or negative feedback on progress.
9. Failure to show appreciation and praise.
10. Poor communication up and down the line.

What Stresses You Out?
Work stress does not exist in a vacuum. Outside factors such as divorce, debt, dealing with relatives and children, all compound any stress experienced in the workplace and vice versa. The way we deal with stress is also highly individual and depends on many factors including personality, general outlook on life, problem-solving abilities and social support network. Something that is stressful to you may not be so daunting to someone else; they may even enjoy it. For example, the morning commute may make you anxious due to fears of being late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow sufficient time for the trip and enjoy the space to think and mentally prepare for work. A more comprehensive definition of stress might therefore be ‘the psychological and / or physiological effects of exposure to acute or chronic stressors, taking into account an individual’s assessment of the situation and their ability to cope’.

The Law
Employers have many duties under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 including the need to:

• Assess the risk of stress-related illnesses arising from work activities.
• Implement preventative and protective measures.
• Carry out health surveillance.

Unfortunately, carrying out risk assessments for work related stress is not a simple process and the results can have far reaching implications as to the manner in which we conduct our business.

Although absence from work with stress is not yet reportable to the HSE as an occupational illness, employers have been successfully prosecuted and fined. In 2001 Janice Howell was awarded £254,362 in compensation after having to retire from work after suffering two stress-related nervous breakdowns.

The evidence that stress affects individuals’ performance at work is conclusive, but like all epidemics stress can be controlled. It has been reported that 94% of companies think that mental health should be of concern to them, yet only 10% have any programme in place. Which group are you in?

Next Month: Part 2 – Stress Management or Managing Stress?

This article was written by Dr. Michael Cash PhD (Cantab) CMIOSH AIEMA

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