Graham Yemm looks at the domino effect of stress, the impact it has on people and business, and how you can monitor and manage the risks

People who work in organisations with a view to helping them reduce or prevent risk are used to looking at issues such as financial risk, product or process failure, safety, hazards, information risk, corporate governance, and so on - all very necessary concerns. Yet, how much attention is paid to one of the biggest underlying risk factors within an organisation - the effects of stress? Not only are there many potential risks arising from the spread of stress within an organisation, it also costs a great deal of money.

Let us start by looking at some figures.

- The CBI estimates that there is a cost of £4bn per annum to industry as a direct result of stress-related absence.
- This figure can rise to over £7bn when you consider the loss of productivity.
- A recent survey by the UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) indicated over 550,000 cases of absence as a result of stress, depression and anxiety.
- A further 66,000 were absent with heart problems as a result of stress.
- There was a loss of nearly 13m working days per annum in total.
- The average absence was 28.5 days for stress-related issues.
- One in five people believe that their job is extremely or very stressful - that is 5m people.
- Up to 40% of absence is related to stress.
- When stressed, employees' performance can be reduced by up to 70%
- The CIPD estimates that stress costs industry £522 per employee.

A starting point in thinking about the risk of unmanaged stress to organisations is to look at the knock-on risks. Where an organisation is suffering from stress problems there will be a number of probable consequences, all with ensuing costs. And they may contribute to other risks.

In a worsening atmosphere of stress there will be an increase in staff turnover. The costs of this are often overlooked or hidden behind some spurious justification. What is the direct cost of recruiting replacements - and the indirect cost of the loss of experience? Staff turnover disrupts business in many ways and reduces profitability. Simultaneously, costs increase.

Further, when individuals are suffering from stress, their performance is likely to deteriorate. The quality of decision making will go down.

What is the risk to the organisation of this? It is probable that the rate of casual errors will increase too - with what consequences?

Relations between people will be affected for the worse. As communication, support or team working deteriorates, people will not enjoy coming to work, and levels of commitment are likely to drop. This will probably mean that customer service gets worse - again, with what consequences?

As people become demotivated, their productivity goes down, once again with an adverse impact on the organisation and its profitability.

New pressures

Why do the figures for recent years show such an increase in stress-related problems? Has that much changed? In short, yes. There are a number of factors, among them the following:

- workloads - reductions in headcount yet the same or more work expected of the people left behind
- the pace of life - hassles with getting around, speed of response to things
- expectations - of self and others
- lack of control over aspects of our lives
- materialism
- values not being met, or having to operate in conflict with our values.

Assessing stress levels

When we take into account the figures and also these probable knock-on effects, it makes sense to think about managing the organisation in a way which will reduce the potential impact of stress. Indeed, that is a key point of one of the HSE initiatives, the introduction of their Management Standards for Stress. Although these standards are not compulsory, there is legislation behind them, such as duty of care and the responsibility attached to managers under health and safety legislation. This means undertaking risk assessments, creating a positive environment and managing work activity to reduce stress and pressure at work.

Before going further into these, let us consider what is meant by this word, 'stress'. The HSE defines it as 'The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them'. A simpler option is to think of it as the internalisation of pressure - where it exceeds your ability to cope. When we hear people say things such as "We all need some degree of stress," what is really being said is that we need some level of pressure to galvanise us to action. These pressures can come from all sorts of sources in our work and personal lives - and from within us too.

We can think of increasing pressure as a rising curve. If the amount of pressure is not high enough, we feel no need to respond, and so performance is likely to be down (a phenomenon irreverently called 'rust out' in some circles). Have you ever gone into a shop or restaurant on a very quiet day? What was the response and service like? This end of the scale can lead to problems from boredom.

Get the pressure right, and we are triggered to respond in the most effective way and will operate at our optimal performance level. As pressure levels increase, our notional curve rises steeply, and when the pressure is too great, the response is what most people think of as the classic stress problem, 'burn out'.

This rarely just happens suddenly. The pressures build up; symptoms will become more and more obvious; the physiological and behavioural clues will be more noticeable. If the situation does not change, and the pressure does not become more manageable, the person who is at this end of the curve will probably start to become ill as the body sends out signals to say it needs to protect itself against this burn out.

The challenge facing managers is to identify what the optimal amount of pressure is likely to be for each person in their team. We each interpret pressures in different ways. What one of us may shrug off, another will think of as a crisis, and vice versa. Added to this, we all have various pressures influencing us which are external to our work. These can range from personal relationships to financial pressures, from environmental pressures to practical ones, such as travelling. Then there is the human capacity to create pressure on ourselves through having unreasonable expectations, or by finding things to worry about over which we have no control. Do managers know their team members well enough to be able to assess their personal pressures?

Monitoring and managing

One of the first things is to acknowledge that there is a risk. Too many managers, especially senior executives, deny that there is a problem, or potential problem. They certainly do not want to suggest that they may be a significant contributor to the problem!

However, stress is not a problem confined to the executive suite. In fact, a higher percentage of the workforce down the line will suffer stress-related problems than senior management. Having said that, the consequences to the organisation and its people of an over-stressed senior manager can be horrendous.

The organisation can use a number of factors to assess whether there is a problem. As in most forms of good management, gathering data is the key. Work from facts and not only conjecture, although do not ignore it.

One of the tests is to look at absenteeism, both the levels and the patterns.

Is the level static or increasing? Is any area of the organisation suffering more than the others? What happens when employees return to work? Do you have a meeting with them to find out the real reasons for the absence, and what you can do to prevent them recurring? Also, will the organisation offer support to help the employee? If there is a pattern in one area, what is being done to address the cause? (Is it the nature of the work, or the manager, or the environment?)

Look at the quality information. Is there an increase in errors or customer complaints, or are other standards not being achieved? Before chasing individuals and demanding improvements, explore why things have begun to slip. Talk to people about what is going on and how they feel.

What is happening to the staff turnover figures? Are any trends apparent?

Is the organisation using exit interviews to find the real reasons behind the departure?

To get a proper overview, a good starting point is to carry out a simple audit. Questions in the following areas will help to give an immediate sense of where the organisation is in terms of meeting the HSE criteria.

It will also highlight where issues may occur.

- The culture of your organisation - how does it approach work-related stress?
- Demands on people, such as workload and exposure to physical hazards - is work sensibly scheduled so that the workload levels are right?
- Control over work and the way it is done - how much say do staff have?
Are managers reasonable in their expectations?
- Relationships - how do you deal with issues such as bullying or harassment?
(Up to one in five people report they have been bullied at work.)
- Organisational change - how is it managed and communicated?
- Do individuals understand their role in the organisation? Does the organisation ensure that individuals do not have conflicting roles?
- Support and training for the person to be able to do the core functions of the job - do you cater for individual needs and differences?

How well would your workplace score? Which areas could do with some attention?

Remember, prevention is better than cure in most things, and this case, it is almost certainly less expensive. Pay attention to these factors and the organisation can start to address stress early, preventing it becoming a problem.

Another thing for the management team to do is to develop an understanding of stress, its causes, symptoms and consequences. They can then begin to operate in a way which will create a healthier organisation.

The secret of stress management is getting to the cause of the problem and dealing with it there. Good management practices, communication, and good support and care will all help to reduce the risk of stress. Reduce stress and you reduce risks in many other areas of the business.

Graham Yemm is one of the founding partners of Solutions 4 Training Ltd, HSE MANAGEMENT STANDARDS

DEMANDS - Includes issues like workload, work patterns, and the work environment. The standard is that:
- employees indicate that they are able to cope with the demands of their jobs
- systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.
What should be happening/states to be achieved:
- 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.
CONTROL - How much say the person has in the way they do their work.
The standard is that:
- employees indicate that they are able to have a say about the way they do their work
- systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.
What should be happening/states to be achieved:
- where possible, employees have control over their pace of work
- employees are encouraged to use their skills and initiative to do their work
- where possible, employees are encouraged to develop new skills to help them undertake new and challenging pieces of work
- the organisation encourages employees to develop their skills
- employees have a say over when breaks can be taken
- employees are consulted over their work patterns.
SUPPORT - Includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues. The standard is: - employees indicate that they receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors
- systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.
What should be happening/states to be achieved:
- the organisation has policies and procedures to adequately support employees
- systems are in place to enable and encourage managers to support their staff
- systems are in place to enable and encourage employees to support their colleagues
- employees know what support is available and how and when to access it
- employees know how to access the required resources to do their job
- employees receive regular and constructive feedback.
RELATIONSHIPS - Includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour. The standard is that:
- employees indicate that they are not subjected to unacceptable behaviours, for example bullying at work
- systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.
What should be happening/states to be achieved:
- the organisation promotes positive behaviours at work to avoid conflict and ensure fairness
- employees share information relevant to their work
- the organisation has agreed policies and procedures to prevent or resolve unacceptable behaviour
- systems are in place to enable and encourage managers to deal with unacceptable behaviour
- systems are in place to enable and encourage employees to report unacceptable behaviour.
ROLE - Whether people understand their role within the organisation, and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles. The standard is that:
- employees indicate that they understand their role and responsibilities
- systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.
What should be happening/states to be achieved:
- the organisation ensures that, as far as possible, the different requirements it places upon employees are compatible
- the organisation provides information to enable employees to understand their role and responsibilities
- the organisation ensures that, as far as possible, the requirements it places upon employees are clear
- systems are in place to enable employees to raise concerns about any uncertainties or conflicts they have in their role and responsibilities.
CHANGE - How organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation. The standard is that:
- employees indicate that the organisation engages them frequently when undergoing an organisational change
- systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.
What should be happening/states to be achieved:
- the organisation provides employees with timely information to enable them to understand the reasons for proposed changes
- the organisation ensures adequate employee consultation on changes and provides opportunities for employees to influence proposals
- employees are aware of the probable impact of any changes to their jobs. If necessary, employees are given training to support any changes
- employees are aware of timetables for changes
- employees have access to relevant support during changes.