Bob joined a multi-national corporate some 15 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed his role as a senior manager leading large teams. He performed exceptionally well in his job until 2012, when a number of major changes — divorce, a workplace restructuring and a new boss whom he seemed unable to please — came together and led to a period of physical ill-health, with sudden weight loss, migraine and severe stomach cramps among the more obvious symptoms.
What was less apparent to Bob’s colleagues and boss was the impact of undetected, unrelieved stress upon his mental health. Only two months after returning to work following a period of sick leave, Bob handed in his notice, exhausted and with shattered confidence as he realised that he no longer felt able to stay on top of his demanding role.
Bob is not his real name, but we all know someone like him. In 2012, the gravity and prevalence of unrecognised workplace stress was highlighted by reports indicating that hospital admissions for stress-related illness have sharply increased in recent years1. A Guardian report in October 2012 states that mental health issues are regularly ignored in the workplace, and account for some 140 million working days lost each year as a result of employee illness, at a cost of over £15 billion annually in lost revenue to the UK economy.
The report called for “a culture change right across the business sectors” with regard to managing employee mental health, underlining the enormous impact on human potential and organisational budgets when excessive pressure over a prolonged period leads to temporary mental incapacity, or worse, “breakdown”.
In the current economic climate of job cuts, reduced pay and high unemployment, it is not surprising that there should be renewed emphasis on the importance of stress management. Factors like these are way up the list of recognised stressors, alongside work overload, bullying and harassment.
But the destructive aspects of stress are nothing new. If your organisation takes stress seriously, employees may be fortunate to benefit from stress awareness training, mediation services, confidential on-site counselling, or a family-friendly, flexible-hours culture with opportunities for homeworking, adequate sickness and holiday leave, gym membership, career and redundancy-management support and coaching, among other possibilities.
If you work in or run an organisation that offers none of the above, that may be because of budget constraints — for smaller organisations struggling to stay in business, paying attention to the needs of overstretched employees may feel like an irrelevant luxury. Or, perhaps it is complacency — some well-funded major corporates still continue to neglect to offer employees support with stress-related difficulties, claiming that there is no perceived need.
Defining terms is an important starting point. Talent management theorists claim that stress at work is not only common, but is, to some extent, desirable. A temporary sense of challenge can and regularly does stimulate some employees to heightened performance, especially when support and encouragement is available to motivate people towards greater achievements.
Nonetheless, clear-cut distinctions exist between positive challenge and negative stress. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”4. This emphasises the difference between pressure — the impact of circumstances — and stress, a human response that, while not in itself an illness, may lead to serious physical and mental illness when pressurising circumstances continue over a prolonged period — particularly when timely relief and support are not available.
The diseases that high levels of stress can cause range from severe immune depression causing repeated colds, coughs and flu, through stomach infections, heightened blood pressure and heart disease, to mental illness such as depression, panic attacks and, in the very worst cases, psychosis and even suicide.
This is the extreme, but timely, appropriate support can prevent ill-health, helping severely stressed people address the underlying issues that affect their well-being. Similarly, stress management support services can transform a return to work for a person on extended sick leave from a dreaded experience into a gradual, confidence-boosting recovery of their full capabilities.
But there are difficulties in detecting debilitating stress in colleagues. After all, there is no universal blueprint regarding how people react to pressurising circumstances. We have different levels of tolerance to ongoing stress, show that we are under pressure in different ways and employ varying strategies (some healthy, others less so) in order to cope. Similarly, and perhaps even more importantly, as human beings we vary enormously in our inclination and ability to talk effectively about our need for support in difficult times.
If you are aware that stress is something that needs addressing in your organisation or with you as a person then we have tools, techniques and experience that can help you start to address and manage this.
- nhs.uk 12.09.12. Sharp rise in hospital admissions for stress — “recession to blame”
- Allen K, Guardian 04.10.11. Stress now commonest cause of long-term sick leave — report
- McCall, M W, 1997. High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders
- HSE, June 2009. Preventing Stress, Promoting Positive Manager Behaviour
- Quenk, N L, January 2012. In the Grip
- Coner – Workplace Stress Why it’s time to speak out – 13/-5/13