Dealing with work related stress

It could be said that there is a contradiction in current employment legislation regarding the very relevant and much experienced problem of work related stress. Under the Health and Safety Act, employers are responsible not only for the physical health and welfare of their staff but for the ‘emotional’ health of staff. Conversely, under the Employments Rights Act 1996, an employee suffering from stress can be dismissed for absence from work, either for a prolonged period or frequent occasions. It does not matter that the stress that has caused this absence is work-related, as a worker can be dismissed due to lack of capability! (see article 4: Dealing With Stress – Employers Rights.)

Stress is the single most common ailment in the workforce today and one which causes thousands of hours of sick leave, sick pay, lost revenue and profitability. More importantly, it is the ‘slippery slope’ for many employees who never fully recover from stress-induced illness. What the employer suffers in lost revenue is just the tip of the iceberg. The sufferer stands to lose everything. Left un-treated and unattended, stress will impact on the everyday life of an individual in a way that can become insurmountable. I regularly witness people who, because of stress at work, are unable to sleep properly, eat properly, feel tired, lethargic and anxious all the time. This inevitably spills over into domestic life with relationships, marriages and family life often suffering disastrous consequences. Most people are unaware that they are suffering from stress related conditions until their general health becomes impaired. The gradual build up can take months, even years. Eventually, the individual can be so unwell that work of any kind becomes impossible.

One of the main problems with work related stress is that most people deny its existence and take no remedial steps until the situation is serious. Ironically, most people will attend to a niggling cough, a bad throat or a headache immediately. Here people suffer obvious physical symptoms and can address them with medicine or a visit to the doctors. Unfortunately, stress related conditions are often seen as a sign of weakness and consequently, people ignore and deny their symptoms. What most people fail to understand is that stress, if untreated, can lead to a catalogue of physical conditions in the future. Stress and anxiety are linked to heart conditions, strokes, back problems, recurring colds and infections. Stress also affects the ability to think rationally and logically. Sufferers often become confused, over sensitive, feel isolated and even paranoid. This subsequently leads to more anxiety, exhaustion and worry – the vicious circle has begun and the sufferer is trapped. Stress is often perceived purely as a mental health condition and this is where the social stigma surrounding stress related conditions often arises. People think that admitting to feeling stressful is a sign that they are suffering from a mental problem. We must remember that the human body is an enormously sophisticated and complicated piece of engineering and we must attend to the whole working ‘unit’ if we are to function properly. We need to address both the physical and emotional aspects of our being. When we take our cars for a service, we expect the whole car to be checked thoroughly. We accept that the working parts suffer from wear and tear and need attention and repair. The human body, in its entirety, needs the same approach.

Learning to recognise the symptoms of stress is a very important step and should be considered on a regular basis. Identifying the causes, particularly where stress is work related is the next step. Changing the circumstances that are causing the stress is probably the most difficult part of the process. The workplace can become somewhere that people feel trapped, badly treated, manipulated, overworked and frightened. Many employees do not know how to break the cycle, they have mortgages to pay, families to keep – the job is financial security. Communicating your problems is the next hurdle that most people never get over. Approaching your employer is usually impossible, saying that you are suffering from work related stress can destroy your credibility, affect your perception within the company and future career prospects. Taking the problem home can cause feelings of worry and insecurity with your partner / family, resulting in additional problems. Visiting your doctor and being diagnosed as suffering from stress may bring short- term relief and some much needed time off. Unfortunately, this will be placed on your medical notes and can cause serious problems in the future. If you are changing jobs, a new employer will want to know your health history – stress on your records will not enhance your prospects. Being diagnosed with stress can affect your present and future insurance policies and claims – insurance companies take stress related illness just as seriously as heart related conditions. An individual diagnosed with stress, particularly taking prescribed medication, can be considered a long- term liability. Addressing your problem is imperative and must not be ignored but who to address it with is very important. Communicating with an impartial and trained employment relations professional can be the catalyst for change. Speaking in confidence with someone who does not know you personally and can be completely objective may be hugely beneficial, particularly if you need assistance with technical details involving employment legislation. Being an employee is not just about doing your job, you also need to be aware of your responsibilities and your legal rights as an employee. You need to understand company procedures and policy, contractual obligations and how to deal with a problem. This is a minefield for most employees in every industry but without the knowledge and confidence to deal with issues, employees will continue to be caught in the stress trap.