Work-related stress soars during a recession, leading to a sharp rise in employee absenteeism, new research has revealed.
The study of tens of thousands of civil servants in Northern Ireland revealed that as many as one in four workers suffered from work stress during an economic downturn, the Press Association reports.
The researchers at the University of Nottingham and University of Ulster also found the number of employees taking time off due to job stress increased by 25% during tough economic times while the total amount of time off increased by more than a third.
Jonathan Houdmont, the study's lead author, said: "The findings suggest that those businesses which seek to reduce work-related stress during austere economic times are likely to experience lower staff absence and greater productivity."
His findings were published in the scientific journal, Occupational Medicine.
Sarah Page, health and safety officer at the Prospect union, commented, as reported by the Press Association: "When workers face reduced job security and an increased workload it is no surprise that depression and anxiety increase, along with absences from work. People feel afraid, uncertain, less supported by managers, and less in control of their lives.
"Previous studies of civil servants had shown that if organisational changes occur without consulting and involving the workforce, the effects on individuals are far more damaging.
"This is an issue where government, employers and unions can make a difference by working together. Employers have a duty to ensure workers' health, safety and welfare at work, and that includes mental health. It shouldn't be about trying to mop up the mess when it's too late, but about introducing preventive measures and support networks."
Another recent survey of 3,000 employees found that workers under the age of 30 are more likely to take time of due to work stress than their over-50s counterparts.
Peter Morton, the marketing manager of Multibionta vitamins, which commissioned the survey, said: "Today's fast paced, work-hard play-hard lifestyle appears to be taking its toll on the younger generation.
"A poor immune system caused by smoking, drinking and a lack of nutritionally beneficial food, lends itself to people being more susceptible to coughs and colds which in turn can lead to sick days."
In a separate study, researchers from the University of Hawaii discovered that work stress could be as contagious as colds and flu.
The study found that our brains act like sponges and subconsciously soak up emotions, behavioural traits and facial expressions emitted from our co-workers.
"People seem to be capable of mimicking others facial, vocal and postural expressions with stunning rapidity," says professor Elaine Hatfield who led the study.
She added: "As a consequence, they are able to feel themselves into those other emotional lives to a surprising extent," adds Professor Hatfield.”
The recession is not the only reason Brits are struggling to keep their heads at work. Firms are being urged to encourage their staff to literally switch off when they finish work after new research showed that frequently checking smart phones and other gadgets for emails and messages increased stress levels.
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, Sleep and Energy Coach at Capio Nightingale Hospital and author of Tired But Wired agrees that technology is making it increasingly difficult for employees to switch off and unwind after work.
She suggests the following tips on how to unplug, recharge and break free from the day’s stresses:
At home, set some rules about when and where you use your smart phone and never take your phone to bed with you as one of my clients, a well-known barrister, would do. He actually slept with the phone switched on and tucked into his pyjama pocket. He had chronic insomnia and problems with alcohol which stemmed from his use of alcohol to help him get to sleep
Allow yourself at least 60mins technology free time before you go to bed to 'unload' the working memory before your head hits the pillow. This means not checking email or social networking before bedtime. Never fall asleep with your laptop, iPad or smart phone switched on beside you. These measures will dramatically improve the quality of your sleep - you will need less REM (dreaming and information processing) sleep and have access to more nourishing, deep sleep.
Take regular breaks throughout the day and roughly on a 90-minute cycle. Get up stretch and go and talk to someone, eat something, focus your eyes on a different plane. If you find this difficult to remember to do then set a timer or use a visual cue to remind you to take a break.
When you are on your laptop or smart phone avoid slumping over your desk or into the sofa. Pay attention to your posture, put both feet on the ground, breathe from your belly.
Research from chronobiology show that people who take lunch breaks - at least a 20min break away from technology - score higher on cognitive performance.
Take time to nurture real relationships that are free of technology - this means face to face contact or actually speaking over the phone. Human beings have evolved with a whole layer of the brain which differentiates us from other animals. This layer is called the 'neocortex' and it is used for social engagement and forming relationships. It's where our 'emotional intelligence' comes from. Research is starting to show that people who merely interact by social networking are actually adversely changing the structure of these areas of the brain.
With instant access to information we seem to have lost the art of daydreaming. The daydreaming process is vital to the creativity process as well as reordering the working memory and rebalancing our energy levels.
Decide on the rules of how you are going to use the technology on holiday. Will you take your BlackBerry with you? Will your check your messages? If so, can you set a time to do this and stick to it so that it doesn't end up spilling over into your break.
Turn off your phone or laptop 15 to 20 minutes before you get home and use the time to daydream or think about what you are looking forward to when you get home. Again this helps to empty the working memory and creates a vital transition between work and home so that you are able to really engage and be present to what is really important in your life.