The common mental disorders of depression, anxiety and stress are now the leading cause of sickness absence at work, costing the UK economy over £70b per annum according to the OECD. The ONS calculate that we lose over 15.2m sick days a year due to stress, with only 2 in 5 employees working at their peak performance. Also, as people are worried increasingly about their job security, there are more cases of presenteeism, people who are ill turning up to work but delivering no added value—this is double the cost to a business and to the country than is absenteeism. This might explain why the UK is 7th in the G7 and 17th in the G20 countries in terms of productivity per capita.
What is stress? Stress is not pressure, pressure is stimulating and motivating but when pressure exceeds one’s ability to cope, then you are firmly in the stress zone. Stress manifests differently in each of us, for some people the first signs of excessive pressure show themselves in behavioural changes eg difficulty sleeping at night, becoming more withdrawn or overly aggressive, losing your sense of humour, not engaging with people—basically a significant change in your normal behaviour. The next stage is showing physical signs of stress eg frequent and severe headaches, frequent heart palpitations, more frequent colds as your immune system gets compromised, and many other symptoms. The final stage, if the individual doesn’t deal with the underlying causes of the stress at work, is illness. There are a range of illnesses where stress is a risk factor such as heart disease, gastrointestinal problems or immune systems disorders.
So what does research say are the causes of workplace stress? There are thousands of studies exploring the factors at work that lead to these symptoms and stress-related illness. The most significant is the boss, that is, how you are managed. Managers who bully people and manage them by fault-finding and lack of compassion are one of the main culprits. People in managerial roles in whatever organisation should manage people by praise and reward, providing constructive feedback when they make mistakes or underperform. Another source of workplace stress is the long working hours culture. The evidence suggests that consistently working long hours, as most lawyers do, will damage an individual’s health over time, as well as their home and social relationships. The answer here is more flexible working arrangements where people can work partly from home and partly from a central office, ensuring they have time to invest in the family and their other outside activities (e.g. gym, engaging with friends and the community). In other words, lawyers like other professionals need better work-life balance. And finally, a major source of problems is managing one’s workload. This is about prioritising your work, not letting less important aspects of your job dominate or other distractions, (e.g. unimportant emails) get in the way of dealing with the significant aspects of your workload. There are a range of ways of dealing with this and many of these can be found in the book How to Deal with Stress by Palmer and Cooper (publisher Kogan Page, London).
John Ruskin, the British social reformer, wrote in 1851 “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it”. Wise words for us all!
Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CBE, ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester
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