Work related stress

Work related stress

The HSE suggest that work related stress develops because a person is unable to cope with the demands being placed on them.  The UK Health & Safety executive suggests that of ALL reported work related illnesses, 40% of them are stress-related.

Stress at work affects individuals, teams and organisations.  Stress is an issue for business. My interest is not really about stress – it’s about thriving.  But stress in the workplace has a big impact and sometimes it’s useful to discuss what drives individuals and business to tackle this problem head on.

I sometimes use a scale of -5 through 0 all all the way to +5.  Where -5 is stressed, 0 is “just OK” … and +5 is thriving.  Stress is the other end of the continuum from thriving.

Stress in individuals

Work related stress

Stress affects large numbers of individuals – especially those in larger organisations.   It can cause illness and absenteeism.  Illness is unpleasant, and there are a range of unpleasant symptoms and indicators of stress.

Many stressors in the workplace can be prevented – by provinding people with the tools to cope.  We do have to be careful – if a manager is a bully or abusive -then developing ‘coping skills’ is not a wise choice – as it’s just giving a licence to the incompetent manager to dole out more abuse.

However many of us have never been given tools to help us to cope – and with these tools – we can do more than cope – we can thrive!   For a number of years within IBM I was involved in designing and training courses for employee well-being – and my personal interest is in employee well-being.  I’m interested in developing an engaged, highly productive and thriving teams! 

The research shows that on average each person suffering from stress takes 24 days of work – and this is one of the highest average days lost per case amongst recognised health complaints.

Stress in teams

In addition to the personal costs of stress, there are costs to organisations in terms of absenteeism, and lack of / lost productivity.  When your colleague goes of sick with stress, or perhaps continues to be ‘present’ is at work – but is stressed and isn’t coping with the demands of the job – it’s likely that it will affect you and others around you.  Others in the team may have to pick up more work – or answer questions (from customers or senior management) about why the work hasn’t been done!  Of course this can pile on the stress to other members of the team in a vicious cycle.

If 40% of all absenteeism is stress related – the HSE suggest that this is almost half a million cases.  That’s not days lost – that’s individual cases of stress in the workplaces.  There’s some marginal good news, in that these figures aren’t increasing.  

Stress in business

All this stress, absenteeism and lack of productivity does affect the profitability of a business.

Taking ownership

Now I don’t know about you but I don’t like feeling under-the-weather and I certainly don’t like getting ill.  Some stress is good for us – we grow and expand our comfort zones.

I wanted to know what I could do to prevent the more harmful sick inducing types of stress in myself – and in my corporate role designing and delivering employee well-being courses – in others, and probably about 10 years ago I began to explore the field of positive psychology (I now have a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology –more information about my background)

This phrase may not be controversial: “undue pressures and demands place on them at work”, however what I’m about to say might be.

For many years organisations have been paternalistic.  “Taking care of” employees, but inadvertently infantilising or reducing adults to a childlike state, thinking that “the organisation knows best”.  Many organisations now want more ownership from employees – there is a change from treating employees in this more parental way – to an approach which is aimed at bringing out the best in people.  But as in an any life transition – this can be quite emotive and potentially disruptive for the individual (think terrible twos, teenage angst, mid-life crisis).

There can sometimes be an uneasy tension between the employer wanting the individual to take ownership … EXCEPT when they want to tell the employee what to do!  This can be confusing and stressful for both parties.  Whilst I don’t have teenage children – I do remember being a teenager –and this organisational approach very much reminds me of this phase.

Organisational change can take time to implement.  For organisations to change from being paternalistic … to something else.  The change process is generally not as smooth as we would like it to be – there are generally some hiccups.  And even when implemented – there can be some managers who never quite accept the new ways of working which can be stressful for the individual (I know – I’ve been on the receiving end).

So what’s an individual to do?  Wait for “daddy” or the organisation to get it “right” – or do we accept that our parents (employers) aren’t perfect and they’re doing a good enough job?   In the meantime – we can take responsibility for our own life and career.

Great Days at Work

In my forthcoming book Great Days at Work (in press, Kogan Page), I provide a practical guide for employees to take responsibility for their own well-being and ability to thrive in the workplace.

Over to you ..

I’m interested in your thoughts and observations about stress in the workplace?  Have the causes of stress changed?  Have you changed how you respond to stressful situations?  How do you deal with stress in the workplace?  Please take a moment to comment on your experiences.


This article was first published on, 31st May 2013 entitled work related stress

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