There is a risk when you comment in any way critically on reports on workplace stress that you come across as some form of Victorian mill-owner, a keen believer in cold showers, beatings and the maintenance of staff morale through the periodic execution of slackers.
Or maybe, as in the most recent Acas publication on the topic, there are genuinely things which could and should usefully have been said about responsibility for workplace stress and weren’t. The workplace policy document “Stress and anxiety at work: personal or cultural?” was issued earlier this month. Based on a survey of 2,000 employees it pings up a number of statistics which are not all they seem and it does not draw the conclusions from them which you might expect.
So for starters, the key question is whether the 2,000 respondents to the survey felt “stressed or anxious” about work. A full 66% said that they did. Two thirds! What a searing indictment of industrial relations in the UK! But wait – what does “stressed or anxious” actually mean? It was not limited to those who had taken time off for it (only 15% of that 66% had done that), or who claimed any other medical consequences. There is nothing in the report which separates those feelings from ordinary, natural and potentially even positive challenges and pressures which might accompany one’s employment from time to time. If you have even the least emotional engagement with your work, you will from time to time be under pressure or anxious to do a good job, or face the stress self-imposed to maximise your remuneration or prospects. The report is therefore posited on the basis that all stress and anything like anxiety is necessarily bad, and that just isn’t true. Some of it undoubtedly is, especially where concern to do a good job crosses into something clinical, but ordinary pressures do not fall into that category.
Those two thirds of employees are not spread evenly across the workforce. Anxiety in whatever form touches 76% of those under 35, but scarcely half those over 55. There is no consideration of why that might be – is it the recognition of the ways of the world brought by age, or simply that by that time your children have probably left home?
In answer to a multiple choice question for employees (hence percentages do not add up to 100) the biggest stressor is workload, followed by “the way they are managed” and (especially among younger workers) balancing home and work life. Money, perceived job insecurity and difficult relations with colleagues followed closely behind. However, of those 60% who said that their workload had caused them to feel stressed or anxious, only 33% thought that reducing it would help. While management style was right up there for 42%, scarcely half that number thought that additional clarity of expectations from them would help. And for the 35% for whom work-life balance meant more than just being at work while still alive, only two thirds would welcome better flexible working opportunities and only 17% had actually taken the step of asking for them. Why relatively few people consider that the superficially obvious answer to each stressor would help them is not explained.
How do employees cope when feeling stressed? Tea and a quick walk top the charts at 41%, venting to a colleague helps 38%, while 28% say that they would do nothing about it at all.
When employees are stressed or anxious, whose responsibility is it to do something about that? 60% agreed that the individual employee himself/herself had a role to play here, showing what might be seen as a worrying abdication of responsibility by the other 40%. By contrast, a full 72% considered that the main burden of recognising and addressing stress and anxiety lay on their line management. OK, but in answer to a separate question, only 43% said that they would speak to their line management about it in the first place, which seems a little unfair on the managers. The same is true for HR – 28% considered HR responsible to address the problem, but only 10% would tell them about it.
The report says rightly that that 43% figure is “worrying”, but let us put that in proper context. Only that 10% would speak to HR and a tiny 6% would speak to their union or staff representative. Despite it all, obviously, the line manager is still seen as the best person to talk to by a significant majority.
So we come back to what could have been said in this report but was not. The alternative story which can be taken from it is that it is at the employee level, not so much line management, that more could be done to address stress and anxiety in the workplace. These statistics show that significant percentages of affected employees take no remedial or coping steps, do not speak to those who could help, do not ask for the measures which they themselves believe might help and above all, do not consider themselves responsible for addressing the issue in the first place. In launching or re-vamping your mental health protection arrangements, therefore (and taking nothing away from your duties as employer), consider strengthening the focus on self-help by your staff, reminding them that little is likely to be done unless the employee’s issues and needs around stress and anxiety are put front and central in communications with the employer. It may or may not be possible to grant all or any of them, but the mere fact of airing the issue and even understanding why nothing much can be done, if that is the case, could itself be helpful to both parties’ understanding of the position.