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Is Work-Related Stress Still a Taboo?

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Jonathon Trott's decision to leave the Ashes this week due to stress-related illness has come as a shock to many England fans, shrouded in an air of weakness as some commentators have suggested. Earlier this month Sir Hector Sants, former Head of the Financial Services Authority, and more recently Head of Barclays, also resigned after just a month's sick leave caused by stress. It is an issue that is of increasing concern, especially in a world where people are expected to work longer hours, with heavier workloads, for little increment in pay. But is it really the sign of a lesser human being to admit defeat at the hands of pressured working conditions or does it take courage to stand up to a truth that affects so many in Britain today?

According to the Labour Force Survey over 80% of working days lost in 2011/12 were due to work-related illnesses. Stress accounts for around 40% of all work-related illnesses. Stress at work is more likely to take place in large organisations (with over 250 employees) compared to a small business (employing less than 50 people.) The majority of reported cases were due to workload, including tight deadlines, too much work and pressure. According to THOR gP (The Health and General Reporting Network in General Practice), a large number of diagnoses of work-related mental illness was anxiety and depression. The greatest factors contributing to work related mental ill-health were changes in the workplace and interpersonal relationships.

There are currently no findings on job type and seniority. We still don't know who is more likely to be affected, someone with managerial responsibilities or a more junior member of staff. Since the financial crisis of 2008 there has been an unprecedented upheaval in the workplace, with companies downsizing and expecting more from members of staff. Why however, are there more cases of work-related stress in larger organisations? Could it be that worker's rights are brushed under the carpet and ignored in order to boost profitability? Is adequate regard given to the health conditions of staff? The recent squeeze on human resources and expertise in most companies has meant that roles have been combined and people have ended up working on projects that may have in the past been shared amongst a team of two, or three.

What is interesting to note however is that since 2001 the number of reported stress-related illnesses in the work place has in fact gone down. But these are the number of cases that have been actively reported by members of staff. Could it be that with the lack of job security and ethical work environment workers are afraid to come forward with their concerns? Do longer working hours inhibit people from seeking medical help and therefore being included in the statistics of work-related stress? It is difficult to find answers when people are afraid to come forward from fear of stigma.

Trott's is the latest in a number of high profile cases where stress has been the cause of lost working days and I am sure it won't be the last. In a time where jobs are harder to come by, and working conditions are faltering, the future seems bleak. What we need instead is to understand that when the working day now takes up most of a person's waking hours the conditions need to be tolerable, if not pleasant. Stress at work needs to be given the same consideration as any other physical illness, and measures should be taken to overcome problems in the workplace. What high profile people such as Jonathan Trott and Sir Hector Sants highlight is that stress is no longer the taboo it once was. The curtain is lifting and people are talking. Employers need to recognise this and step up to the job. In fact, we all have a moral obligation to recognise the plight of the person sitting at the next desk.

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