According to a study on work-related stress from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, stress is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem in Europe, after musculoskeletal disorders.
Over a nine-year period, nearly 28% of European workers reported exposure to psychosocial risks that affected their mental well-being. The 2015 European Week for Safety and Health at Work, running from October 19 to 23, is part of the Healthy Workplaces Campaign, ‘Manage Stress’.
In today’s modern workplace, a certain level of pressure is completely normal and to be expected, says Patricia Murray, occupational psychologist with the Health and Safety Authority.
“However, when this pressure develops into a persistently stressful working environment, with little or no supports in place, people can find it difficult to cope and some may develop a range of health issues as a result. And, as with most potential health issues, it is much better to take a preventative approach.”
For the individual, the negative effects of poorly managed psycho-social risks include work-related stress, poor mental health, burnout, concentration difficulties, domestic problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor physical health. The organisation can ultimately suffer from poor overall business performance, absenteeism, and increased accident and injury rates. Research has also shown that work-related stress may contribute to increased rates of early retirement, particularly in white-collar workers. Estimates of the cost to businesses run into the billions.
Research from the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks has revealed that while around half of larger organisations have established procedures for dealing with psychosocial risks, the proportion of smaller organisations that have comparable measures in place is only 20% to 30%. But, even with limited resources, psychosocial risks can be assessed and managed cost effectively in small organisations, with the benefits outweighing the costs of implementation.
“The goal of any employer should be to ensure that workplace activities are not unduly adding to the issues facing any employee or group of employees. It makes clear business sense,” Patricia Murray adds.
Research from Aware, the national organisation which provides support, education, and information on depression and related conditions, found that half of Irish businesses consider stress and mental health a priority in their workplace, yet 84% do not have a policy or wellness programme in place. Aware’s research also revealed that concern about the mental health of colleagues is more prevalent among management of larger companies, one in seven, and those working in the public sector, one in six.
Furthermore, business owners say employees are far more likely to open up about work-related, financial or physical health issues than mental health, with only 18% of companies being approached about a personal mental health issue.
Commenting on the findings Dominic Layden, Aware CEO, said: “Mental health is a key issue in the workplace and probably the majority of senior managers working in Ireland have at some point been concerned about the wellbeing of a colleague. There can be a real fear about how best to tackle the issue; Aware wants companies to understand that prioritising wellness at work has benefits for all.”
In the US, workplace stress is thought to contribute to 120,000 deaths each year and costing up to $190bn (€168.7bn) in healthcare costs, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University. The report, which compiled evidence from 228 other studies, found that high job demands increased the odds of having a medically diagnosed illness by 35%. Long work hours increased the chances of early death by almost 20%.
“When you think about how much time individuals typically spend at work, it’s not that surprising,” says study co-author Joel Goh, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. The biggest stress factor was concern around possible job loss, which increased the odds of poor health by up to 50%.
“If employers are serious about managing the health of their workforce and controlling their health care costs, they ought to be worried about the environments their workers are in,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford University professor of organisational behaviour, who co-authored the report.