By Andy Wilkins, Gwent Hospitals Contributory Fund

Many employers and employees alike are familiar with feeling under pressure at work. The current poor economic growth and job uncertainty are contributing to the issue of stress in the workplace and businesses are suffering as a result. The problem is now so acute that a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) study revealed that stress is the number one reason for long term absence for manual and non-manual workers, surpassing muscular-skeletal problems.

The current economic climate can be characterised by public sector cuts, pay freezes, high unemployment and fragile markets. Those lucky enough to be in full time employment are still plagued with worries of job losses and are feeling under pressure due to mounting workloads. Figures show that this situation can spiral out of control and lead to workers suffering from mental health problems such as stress and clinical depression. Nearly four in ten (39 per cent) of employees say that their absence is due to mental health problems such as stress. Among those surveyed, those experiencing redundancy were much more likely to report an increase in stress-related absence (51 per cent).

It is clear to see that the issue of stress is prevalent in modern, working Britain and the struggling economy has served to exasperate the situation. You would expect that employers and employees alike would have a deeper understanding about the issue and how to manage it but a recent study by mental health charity, Mind, revealed that attitudes are shockingly behind.

One in five of the 2,000 employees surveyed by the charity believe that if they mentioned their stress levels they would be put first in line for redundancy. Two thirds of the same sample admitted to being put under more pressure by management since the economic downturn. The research also found that employees’ fear about being treated unfairly were not unfounded as 22% of those who had disclosed a mental health problem in a previous job, said they had been fired or forced to quit.

It appears that more too often than not, staff health and wellbeing is not high enough on the priority list for business leaders. Issues such as managing staff welfare, although important, can sometimes take a back seat to a focus on the bottom line. However, ignoring the issue of stress in the workplace can have a negative impact on staff morale, productivity and ultimately profit.

The survey highlights that stress is still the elephant in the room and this stigma needs to be removed. Attitudes of employees also reveal that many businesses have failed to create a transparent and understanding work environment in which people can admit to their manager that they are suffering from stress.

If the study is to be believed, stress becomes the unspoken issue within the workplace which manifests itself to very real effect. New statistics showing stress is the number one cause of absenteeism, should strike a chord with employers. Keeping staff motivated and reducing absenteeism is an integral part of running a productive and profitable company. Long sickness absence within SME’s can cause disruption, low morale and can run the risk that remaining staff are put under undue pressure covering absent employees’ workloads. Dealing with stress quickly and sensitively is the key to avoid it becoming part of the company culture. To a large degree, managing stress is about effective leadership and people management, particularly during periods of major change and uncertainty.

Stress can be a symptom of mental illness and sufferers are of course protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. But employers should not only aim to remain compliant with the legislation but aim to go above and beyond to cultivate an honest and open work environment that not only supports staff experiencing stress but aims to reduce its impact.

It is important that businesses invest in building a healthy and happy workforce as a means of encouraging staff retention that will serve them well during the slow economic recovery. The investments don’t have to be hugely costly. They can include steps such as regular team-building days that enable all staff members to feel a part of the company and its objectives or offering staff benefits such a health cash plans and insurance which are regarded as one of the most valuable staff benefits.

Some companies are already running staff wellbeing programmes for their staff, offering benefits such as counseling services and employee assistance programmes which enable employees to access information and advice on workplace issues, as well as emotional, psychological and personal issues.

The key for employers offering such benefits is communicating effectively with staff so they can get the most from them.

The revised GDP figures for the second quarter show only a 0.1% growth as a result of a fragile jobs market and decreased consumer spending. These figures show that the economic situation is likely to remain strained for some time and it’s more important than ever that employers run a tight ship, supporting staff through dramatic periods of change and maintain productivity. Stress is a real threat to this productivity and keeping an open mind, communicating with staff and being prepared to invest resource are key ways employers can reduce this threat.

Through our health cash plan at GHCF, we help employers offer tangible support to staff experiencing stress or mental illness. We offer free access to a helpline that provides counseling and practical advice on how to cope with stress as well as professional referrals.

About The Author

Andy Wilkins is the chief executive of GHCF a health cash plan provider. For more information visit http://www.ghcf.co.uk/