Stress - or job satisfaction?

May 16 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Stress costs the UK economy 10 per cent of its Gross National Product, a new report claims. Yet fewer than one in 10 companies have policies in place to tackle the problem.

A report from mental health charity MIND has found that almost 13 million working days a year are lost to stress in Britain - thirty times as many days as are lost in industrial disputes.

Workplace stress is now estimated to be the biggest occupational health problem in the UK after musculoskeletal disorders, with one in five people claiming that they find their work "very" or "extremely" stressful.

The survey found the most stressful jobs are teaching, social work, call centre work, prison officers and the police and notes that in the public sector, 64 almost two-thirds of employers were concerned about overwork or stress at work, compared to half of private sector employers.

However as the report acknowledges, this should not necessarily be sued to excuse the fact that public sector employees take an average of three days more sick leave than their private sector counterparts.

"This imbalance could be due in some measure to the fact that the culture within the public sector is more accepting of higher sickness absence rates relative to the private sector," the report says.

However, as research carried out in Finland in 2003 found, male workers classed as having low justice in 'decision making procedures' had a 41 per cent higher risk of sickness absence than their 'high justice' equivalents.

MIND also points out that a recent CBI survey of over 800 companies found that while 98 per cent said mental health should be a company concern, fewer than one in ten had an official policy on mental health.

Richard Brook, the chief executive of MIND, said: "Employers cannot afford to ignore the ever-increasing levels of occupational stress and the long-hours culture of working Britain.

"We urge more understanding of stress and mental health problems in the workplace. Today's competitive and pressured work environments can make it difficult for people to disclose their problems."

Sources of stress cited in the report included poor working conditions, relationships at work, an unclear role in the organisation, long hours, lack of job security, organisational climate, and a general mismatch between and individual's personality type and the requirements of their job.

But others are less convinced by MIND's arguments, claiming that many claims of stress-related illness are more symptomatic of Britain's "sickie culture" and that GPs are far too likely to accept patient's claims of stress without question.

Ruth Lea from the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank said last month that the workplace was increasingly getting the blame for problems in other aspects of people's lives.

"We all accept that to some extent people have stress," she said. "But sometimes stress in people's lives tends to get focused on the workplace. Frequently it's not work issues that cause the stress," she said.

"There's a difference between stress and pressure. Because stress has become more acceptable it's become the new backache."

It's become acceptable, almost traditional, to talk about stress in the workplace," she added. "Ten or 20 years ago people didn't use the term at all, they would say, 'Frankly, what do you expect?'.

"There's a difference between stress and pressure.

"Because stress has become more acceptable it's become the new backache. People say, 'Sorry, I've got stress'."

And while long hours are frequently cited as a cause of stress, research published last week by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that more than three quarters of those who work longer than 48 hours a week do so because they want to, not because they are forced to.

Nevertheless, MIND insists that workplace stress has reached almost "endemic proportions" and says that employers cannot afford to ignore it any longer.

Conversely, as a Confederation of British Industry spokesman said: "One person's stress is another person's job satisfaction."