Stress Management

by Helen Whitten

The business case for managing stress

Some managers argue that stress is a good thing; that it motivates people.

Certainly, everyone needs some adrenalin to get them out of bed in the morning and to pursue excellence within their chosen field. However, the adrenalin-kick of motivation is a very difference experience to stress. In an adrenalin-fired moment of challenge, people feel energised and on the ball; under stress, people report feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and unable to think clearly.

The stress performance curve demonstrates this difference. Read the curve from left to right. As a manager, your task is to meet the needs of your people and keep them in the middle of the curve to maintain motivation without risking the slide down into burnout. Stress will occur when the pressure perceived by an individual ceases to be motivating and they see it as being beyond their ability to cope. Your aim should be to provide the necessary skills and support that your people need if they are to avoid reaching this stage.

Stress performance curve

The impact of stress on judgement, communication and creativity are genuine business concerns. It is worth your while taking this seriously, as it can lead to delay, conflict and even to sabotage.

During stress, the sense of ‘overwhelm’ impairs concentration. People respond differently, but below are some examples of how stress impacts performance.

  • It can lead to confusion and obsessive negative thinking or preoccupation with an idea that limits a person’s ability to achieve their goals. Perspective is lost. People can go into knee-jerk reactive responses and not consider the long-term consequences of their actions or decisions.
  • Stress can drive people into safety, survival mode, so they go down old tried-and-tested routes rather than innovating and experimenting with alternative or lateral ways of managing a situation.
  • People make more mistakes and allow themselves to focus on distraction activities – doing small tasks and procrastinating on priority tasks.
  • Communication often leads to conflict: a person can lose their temper with colleagues and customers alike, seriously damaging long-term relationships in a way that they often regret afterwards.

Despite the introduction of policy initiatives and information on the subject, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report in December 2007 stated that the number of people seeking medical advice for work-related stress has risen from 110,000 in 2005 to 530,000 in 2007. This can’t be good for business and shows that something is wrong. The HSE have indicated that

  • Stress is likely to become the most dangerous risk to business in the early part of the 21st century
  • One in five workers report feeling extremely stressed at work; this equates to five million people in the UK
  • Self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety account for an estimated 10.5 million reported lost working days per year in Britain.

The financial cost of stress

The latest CBI-AXA Absence Survey, released in May 2008, reported that sickness absence now costs the UK £19.9 billion a year:

  £517 The average direct cost of absence per employee, per year
  £263 Add this for indirect costs, such as unanswered customer calls and new business leads, lower team morale and absence management training
  £780 The total average cost per employee of sickness absence. For a company with 10,000 staff, this equates to £7.8 million a year.

Of course, not all this is the result of stress, but as stress depletes the immune system, it inevitably does have an impact. Equally, stressful workplace cultures of presenteeism tend to cause illnesses to be spread around more members of a team when people who really ought to be at home bring their infection into the workplace.

These facts demonstrate that there are both overt and covert costs to business of staff being stressed.

Why aren’t these figures coming down, despite the actions organisations are taking to raise awareness? In the main, it because although, on the one hand, a one-day training course may tick a Health & Safety Regulation box, on the other hand, the everyday culture and business practices of an organisation may not be changing in any meaningful way. A one-day course helps, but does not change behaviour: review and integration of new ways of approaching challenging situations is what changes behaviour over time. This is where you, as a manager, can really help to cut the organisational costs of stress.

Legal costs

You also have legal obligations, and litigation can be expensive. A landmark House of Lords judgement in 2004 clarified employers’ obligations in relation to stress under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The case involved Leon Barber, an experienced teacher who sued Somerset County Council after stress forced him to take early retirement. The Lords ruled that the council had not done enough to help Mr Barber and signalled that all employers should take preventative action to avoid workplace stress. This would involve undertaking a risk assessment (see Health and Safety Regulations for Managers).