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Too stressed to work

Days lost to stress on the rise in workplaces – are managers to blame?
Hajera Blagg, Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

Stress at work is on the rise, with more and more companies reporting an increase in stress-related absences, according to a new survey.


Two-fifths of businesses said they have recorded a rise in days lost to stress, mostly driven by poor management, according to the latest Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) poll.


The survey, which polled more than 1,000 HR and people development professionals, found that 62 per cent said heavy workloads, attributable to poor management, were the number one reason for days lost to stress at work.


The second biggest factor driving the rise in stress-related absences was management styles, a problem identified by 43 per cent of those surveyed, up from 32 per cent last year.


The CIPD highlighted the lack of management training, with only 50 per cent of managers having received training to help their employees better manage stress or spot the signs of stress early on.


Two worrying trends linked to stress at work identified by the survey included a rise in ‘presenteeism’ – or coming in to work despite being ill – and ‘leavism’, or continuing to work while on holiday.


“Managers should be helping to alleviate stress among their staff, not contributing to it,” said CIPD employment relations adviser Rachell Suff. “But too many managers are being set up to fail because they haven’t received adequate training, despite them often being the first person employees will turn to when they have a problem.


“Rates of presenteeism and leaveism, which are both linked to stress, remain stubbornly high,” she added. “Employers have a responsibility to tackle these bad habits. They must also realise that staff are not going to perform at their best if they are working when ill or using up holiday to work rather than recharge.


The latest CIPD research on stress at work was highlighted on Tuesday morning (April 9) on BBC Breakfast, with viewers anonymously sharing their experiences of untenable workloads and poor management.


“I worked for an international company,” one viewer reported. “The workload is such that I worked from 7 in the morning to 3am the next morning because of the time zones. The company’s solution was to re-organise and replace me.”


Another anonymous viewer described how they had a “breakdown” and ended up in a “depressive coma”.


“I was in hospital for six months due to bad management and workplace stress, and I’m still signed off from work.”


Mental health training

Other viewers reported positive experiences when their managers and other colleagues had been trained in mental health first aid – training which Unite has worked to promote in workplaces across the UK.


UniteLive highlighted earlier this year one workplace where mental health has been placed at the top of the agenda, thanks to the efforts of Unite reps and members.


Lee Wiggets-Clinton, a Unite convenor at Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, made mental health training a priority when he noticed two years ago that in sickness meetings with members, time and again mental health issues such as stress were among the biggest reasons people had missed work.


He approached the council leader and councillors about ways that they can take action. Lee and the Unite West Midlands 7015 branch lobbied for their employer to sign up to Time to Change’s Employer Pledge, which commits employers to specific mental health goals.


Now, staff mental health is at the forefront of the Council’s priorities, with all stewards receiving mental health awareness training and some going the extra mile to become mental health first aiders.


“Like medical first aiders, mental health first aiders serve as a vital first port of call in emergencies,” Lee explained. “Just as a medical first aider may help stem the bleeding if someone is cut until they can seek medical attention, so too does a mental health first aider act as the first person you might talk who can support you in taking that next step to get professional help.”


As a result of Lee and his branch’s efforts, not only have the number of sickness days fallen but Unite membership has increased as well. In this way, mental health advocacy has become an important recruitment tool.


Lee believes it’s vital that trade unions take a lead on mental health the way Unite has done.


“Employers aren’t going to always listen – they aren’t on the ground the way unions are and sometimes they just don’t want to take responsibility,” he said. “Add to the mix, massive cuts to the NHS and mental health services, which means we all have to step up and play our part – or no one else will.”


Stress ‘epidemic’

While Unite helps facilitate mental health training in the workplace, the union is also backing the #WheresYourHeadAt campaign, which is aiming to change the Health & Safety at Work Act to so that workplaces must have mental health first aiders, similar to the current requirement for ‘physical’ first aiders.


The CIPD’s latest research published this week mirrors an earlier study last year from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which also found that the rise in work-related stress absences was being fuelled by poor management.


Commenting on the HSE’s findings, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said it was “not an exaggeration” to say that workplace stress had become an “epidemic”.


“The union is also always on hand to stand up to bosses and employers who are treating their staff unjustly or putting their mental or physical wellbeing at risk for whatever reason,” Turner said.


He stressed the need for a wholesale “culture change, particularly by bosses who are too often blind to the fact that workplaces will be healthier and more productive if the needs of staff are taken into account.”


Turner said that trade unions are vital to bringing about that change, “but action must also come from the government and the HSE to ensure that employers are held to higher standards when it comes to protecting the mental health of their staff”.


He added, “Employers must also make sure their line managers are provided with the training and tools to ensure they are not part of the problem.”


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