Stress at work has become a topical subject. During the past year or two, there have been numerous reports published about it, among them the Institute of Management's Are Managers under Stress? A Survey of Management Morale (September 1996) and The Samaritans' The Cost of Stress (October 1996). However, I am constantly aware that there remains a glibness accompanying discussion of the subject.
Everyone has experienced stress, so what is all the fuss about? I believe that despite recent interest in the subject, there is a taboo that still exists, at grass-roots level, on talking about stress, depression and suicide. This taboo exacerbates the problem of stress, and the results can be devastating to the individual and to business. It is notoriously difficult to define. Undoubtedly stress can be positive, but at what point does it become damaging? Stress seems to have become acceptable almost to the point of being obligatory, so when do ordinary, acceptable levels of stress spiral into depression and even suicidal behaviour?
The causes of stress are complex. There is often an inseparable combination of work and domestic factors - a company merger or takeover, for instance, at the same time as the break-up of a relationship - and the problem is balancing the two. However, there are tangible, work-related causes of stress such as long hours, time pressure, management style, uncertainty, rapid change, competition or an increased workload due to a company's downsizing. Many of these - long hours in particular - were a hallmark of the 1980s which have persisted.
Symptoms of stress may include irritability, aggression, susceptibility to illness, insomnia, alcoholism, poor work, anxiety and depression. Stress contributes to individuals becoming depressed if their resources for coping and the support that is available are outweighed by the unrelenting demands on them and a feeling that things are out of their control. This balance of stress levels with coping mechanisms and support can be a fragile one.
The results of unrelieved stress on the individual and on business are worrying. The result may be higher accident rates, sickness absence, inefficiency, damaged relationships with clients and colleagues, high staff turnover, early retirement on medical grounds, and even premature death.
Despite all this, a taboo persists. Stress and depression is compounded by fear, confusion and shame. There is shame that suffering from emotional problems will be perceived by the individual's boss and peers as weakness.
There is confusion over what depression means, and there is fear that emotional problems may be linked with mental illness. The latter is a frightening subject. There is fear that by admitting you are stressed or depressed, you may lose your job, friends and social integration. The Samaritans' attitudinal research produced such worrying observations as, 'You wouldn't get promoted at work if you said you were depressed,' and 'There's an unwritten rule that you don't bring your problems to work'.
At a reception to launch The Samaritans' report, Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at UMIST, outlined to a group of business leaders exactly what will happen if these issues are ignored: an increase in US-style litigation. Social worker John Walker was fired by Northumberland County Council in 1988, after suffering two nervous breakdowns. A watershed case followed in which he received £175,000 damages for having to accept a 'health-endangering workload'. This is the bottom line. I think courts will increasingly find that a company has neglected its duty of care if it overloads an individual to emotional breaking-point.
So what can be done about stress? At The Samaritans, we are proposing that further research is undertaken to find out more about the nature and the extent of the taboo and the unhelpful attitudes that need challenging.
The Samaritans' experience is that emotional support offered to a person suffering from stress can encourage them to talk about their feelings, thus releasing pressure. After 24 years as a Samaritan volunteer and eight years as chief executive, I know that the simple act of talking and being listened to without judgment can make the difference between a caller choosing life rather than suicide. Public education is needed on the subject of coping skills. We need to be better at looking after our own emotional health by talking about painful feelings.
National advertising can help communicate such stress management messages.
But I want to call upon business leaders to act too. It is important that increasing stress levels are recognised and the extent of the problem is acknowledged. Staff should be encouraged to raise problems with their colleagues or managers.
Companies can work with organisations like the CBI towards addressing the preventable causes and effects of stress using guidelines such as those produced by the Health & Safety Executive. Some companies, such as Marks & Spencer, provide well-staffed counselling and support units. If this is impossible, other, external support services could be advertised through bulletin boards and newsletters. Staff could be made aware of The Samaritans' 24-hour service which costs a company nothing.
Do you know the level of stress-related illness within your organisation?
Could it be reduced? The cost of stress is huge. It is devastating to the individual and damaging to business at a time when the need to control business costs and ensure an effective and healthy workforce is greater than ever. I believe that it is in everyone's interest to tackle the taboo on talking about emotional problems because it is this which inhibits individuals from seeking help before pressures overwhelm them. In a recent series of articles in the Sunday Times about stress at work, Rowena Rees wrote that we need to 'create a culture where stress is recognised as a feature of modern business life and not as a sign of weakness or incompetence'.
I endorse this wholeheartedly.
By encouraging people to talk more openly and by confronting attitudes to all aspects of mental and emotional health, fewer people will need the services of organisations like ours.
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE SAMARITANS AND COMPANION OF THE IM
'The cost of stress is huge. It is devastating to the individual and damaging to business at a time when the need to control business costs and ensure an effective and healthy workforce is greater than ever. It is in everyone's interest to tackle the taboo on talking about emotional problems because it is this which inhibits individuals from seeking help'.