Much has been written about the need for, and benefits of, a ‘healthy’ workplace culture. But what does this mean in practice, and why now more than ever before is this a goal to which all organisations should commit themselves? Leading Occupational Stress Management Consultant Carole examines the issue.
Work-related stress is becoming more and more of an problem for employers, and the statistics speak for themselves. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) for example:
* 13.4 million working days were lost due to stress, depression and anxiety in 2001/2.
* The average number of working days lost in each case of work-related stress is 29.
* The cost of work-related stress to society as a whole is £3.7 billion per year.
* 500,000 people are currently experiencing work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill.
It isn’t just the HSE that is concerned about the problem. According to the TUC (2004), 58% of workers now report being stressed at work. And while those of us who specialise in stress management may be becoming a little blasé about these figures, when you look at what lies behind them, the human costs are appalling - with latest research suggesting that chronic stress can lead to much more than simply time off work.
Case Study: The Human Cost Of An Unhealthy Work Culture
Giles, an experienced Marketing Manager, joined a financial company in the City of London. His contract of employment and conditions of service clearly stated that his working hours were ‘9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, with some overtime if required.’
A year later he was working most evenings until 7 or 8 pm and taking work home every weekend. One Monday morning, his wife Lisa telephoned the Marketing Director to inform him that her husband had suffered a heart attack on Saturday evening and was now in the Cardiac Care Unit of the local hospital. She had been told that Giles was lucky to have survived and that although he should make a good recovery, he was likely to be off work for the next three months.
Lisa wanted to know why Giles had been working such long hours. She had found his contract of employment, and questioned why he was told his hours would be 9 am to 5 pm. She also said that she was taking legal advice.
Prior to this incident occurring, Lisa was incensed that on two occasions in the previous year Giles had cancelled their holiday arrangements. On the first occasion he had too much work to do and told Lisa that he had to be available in the office to complete a vital deal. On the second occasion, his holiday was cancelled at short notice when his boss told him that he had only just remembered he had booked three weeks’ holiday himself and they could not both be out of the office at the same time.
This case study highlights the importance of a ‘healthy’ corporate culture in stress avoidance and management. We have a culture of ‘presenteeism’ in this country that many of our (more productive) European neighbours find impossible to understand. The simple fact is that longer hours do not equate to greater productivity -they result in stressed, de-motivated, uncreative and unproductive workers.
Sadly, it is often only when one of these workers either suffers a serious illness or threatens litigation that their employer is forced to reconsider the way the organisation is managed – and even then they may simply shrug it off as a sign of weakness in the employee, rather than their own poor management practice. In such a business environment, it’s hardly surprising the Government is doing everything it can to encourage employers to tackle the issue.
Carrot Or Stick?
On 3 November 2004, the HSE published its new Management Standards for work-related stress -designed to help ensure that organisations address key aspects of workplace stress (or ‘risk factors’) including demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. For each risk factor, the Management Standards include a description of what should be happening in an organisation (or ‘states to be achieved’) in order for the Standard to be met.
‘Demands’, for example, includes issues like workload, work patterns and the work environment. States to be achieved are that:
* The organisation provides employees with adequate and achievable demands in relation to the agreed hours of work
* People’s skills and abilities are matched to the job demands
* Jobs are designed to be within the capabilities of employees
* Employees’ concerns about their work environment are addressed
One of the major criticisms that has been levelled at the standards – particularly by the Trade Unions – is that because they are not legally binding, they will not give employers sufficient encouragement to act. While there is an element of truth in this, it’s still the case that breach of the applicable regulations could lead to criminal prosecution or claims for compensation through the civil courts -something all employers need to be fully aware of.
But as a stress management specialist working with organisations across the entire spectrum of the UK economy – and as highlighted by the case study above -what strikes me as a far greater barrier to the success of the standards is the cultural change they require of UK plc.
Culture Is Everything
Coinciding with the launch of the HSE’s new Management Standards was the publication of a leaflet entitled Working together to reduce stress at work – a guide for employees. Backed by organisations including Acas, the TUC and CIPD, one of the key elements of the leaflet is a section titled How can I support my employer?
Many employees are currently working long hours for a minimum wage, and in poor conditions where thoughts for their welfare are sadly very low on their employer’s agenda. The chances of these employees having empathy with this statement are therefore completely alien.
Before an employer can look to an employee to support their organisation, they need to develop a culture where employees are valued and recognised. With the current employment climate of short-term contracts, little or no job security, and a predominate culture of workplace bullying, employees are extremely unlikely to raise their head above the parapet and try to help identify what they consider may be wrong with the organisation that pays their wages.
So while the Management Standards are to be welcomed as a structured methodology for moving forward, it is naïve to think that the standards alone will bring back loyalty, commitment and goodwill to industry today. There’s therefore an equally pressing need to improve the culture of individual organisations -to make them more ‘healthy’ and ‘robust’.
While stress management is the responsibility of both employers and employees, the culture of the organisation has to be right for this to take place. The employer needs to look out for signs and symptoms of stress (and if they don’t know how to do this, then they need to be trained); and employees need to be able to openly discuss when they are experiencing excessive pressure. Too many employees work in a culture of fear where they don’t have the confidence to speak up to their employer – concerned that they will lose their jobs, might be ‘picked upon’, or that their lives could be made a misery.
The first step in the standards approach is a risk assessment to identify workplace hazards. If an organisation focuses on developing a healthy culture, then stress-related hazards will be minimised, and the whole process of stress risk assessment will become a mere formality. The behaviour of individual managers is vital to this process, because behaviour breeds behaviour. If a manager demonstrates an open two-way dialogue with attentive listening, then his or her team will follow.
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