Workplace Stress Is Killing Us - Here’s What We Can Do About It

It's an unspoken problem, but 49% of sick days are due to stress
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Within a year and a half of starting my first job, I had burned out. It was a crisis of self-care, as much as anything: I’d been working too many hours, and compensating with all the wrong things. I drank between seven and twelve cans of diet coke a day, which meant that I couldn’t sleep even when I had the time. I took steroids for more energy; at a certain point, even those stop working. At the office, I was so exhausted that I cried every time my manager left the room.

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, of course. It builds up. First, it’s the long hours: until two or three in the morning, and for multiple weeks and weekends on the trot. Then, there’s the emotional labour: clients that share all their stresses, because that’s what you’re paid to deal with. Finally, there’s what happens when you put all of these overworked people together, and review them all every six months, and tell them they won’t have a job if they don’t keep moving forward.

Stress does weird things to you. One manager I worked with rarely stopped shouting. With others, you’d go drinking two or three nights a week, until somebody senior ended up in bed with somebody junior, and everything quickly became a bit uncomfortable. In one case, within a week of working with a new manager, I’d heard his entire sexual history over a 2am cup of tea. In that context, it somehow feels forgivable: a misjudged attempt to build a friendship that will get you through the tough moments.

This isn’t a #metoo story, although I too have some of those. This is a story about what stress at work does to all of us.

Workplace stress is a huge, growing problem

The effects of workplace stress are widespread. According to the HSE, experiences like mine affected 1,610 of every 100,000 UK workers in 2016/17, up 7% from the previous year. The effects of stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 49% of all working days lost due to ill health, and 25% of employee churn. Stress related absence is estimated to have cost the UK alone £26billion last year; in the US, the figure is $300bn. Imagine what our economies could do with that amount of money.

There are increasing consequences for companies that fail to address the problem, too. In the UK, a recent decision to outlaw employment tribunal fees has led to a 100% increase in claims in the last year. While most companies try not to pay settlements to departing employees, the rising number of claims has increased the pressure to do so.

These are extreme cases, and most never get that far. In fact, according to the bestselling business book Crucial Conversations, employers are unlikely ever to hear about these problems. 70% of employees are facing a difficult situation at work, but avoiding bringing it up with their line manager or coworkers. Unfortunately, these unspoken problems can be the most costly:

  • Employee churn. This is the largest cost. It’s estimated as many as 25% of employees leaving, leave due to stress. Deloitte have estimated the cost of employee churn as 1.5–2x the annual salary.
  • Sick days. 49% of sick days are due to stress.
  • Employee grievance time. We’ve heard that every formal grievance takes eight weeks of a manager’s time. It’s a huge distraction from their other responsibilities.

Together with academics at the University of Portsmouth, we’ve found that workplace conflict costs the average organization over 2% of its payroll costs in employee churn and sick days alone. In certain sectors, such as professional services, education, public administration and social care, this number is much higher. Across every sector, minority groups are disproportionately affected.

This isn’t just a business problem; it’s a public health crisis. Stress causes chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. These conditions account for a huge proportion (estimates go up to 75%) of the disease burden in the US alone. Stress is literally killing us. Its biggest cause? Not financial problems or health, but work.

There are solutions to the problem

It doesn’t need to be this way. Over the last few months, we’ve worked with a number of experts to understand what works, as well as what doesn’t.

Good advice makes half the problem go away. According to the experts we’ve spoken to, half of all serious problems can be entirely prevented if the target accesses quality advice early on. Some organizations provide this advice through employee assistance programmes, usually through their benefits provider. Unfortunately, broken subscription models create a poor service that most employees don’t use. Only 3% will ever take advantage, and the vast majority don’t even know it exists.

The other half is more complex. According to THOR-GP, 42% of reported workplace stress is due to factors perceived to be intrinsic to the job. Some of this may be manageable, with enough leadership commitment; some, we must recognise, can be hard to address across all industries. Senior management, however, must commit to action where they can: time and time again, we’ve heard that the number one reason that people don’t seek help is because they don’t trust their organization to protect them.

What does it look like when companies do this well? The team looks forward to coming into work, and sick days are lower than elsewhere. People want to work there, and it costs less to recruit than it does for competitors. Managers have time to focus on hitting targets, and so deliver more consistently. And people stay, with many of these companies seeing less than 1% churn each year. Happy teams have even been shown to be 20% more productive.

Safely Spoken is an independent, anonymous advice platform to address issues of workplace conflict and stress. We’re now opening up more publicly; if you would like to tackle stress more proactively, please feel free to reach out to me personally on

Emma Makinson is CEO of Safely Spoken

This blog first appeared on Medium, and can be read here


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