As Work Related Stress Costs UK Economy Nearly £6.5bn Each Year, What Steps Should Businesses and Employees Be Taking?

05/07/2013 11:50 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 10:12 BST

The astounding cost of work related stress to the economy reached a massive £6.5bn last year, demonstrating how prevalent an issue stress in the workplace has become in the UK.

Last year there were 10.4 million days lost to stress, with the cost of 'sick' days being £618 meaning workplace stress totalled £6,427,200,000. With presenteeism also on the rise, meaning employees coming to work disengaged, tired, unmotivated and too stressed to work, businesses could see these costs rise if they don't take action.

So, what is causing these high numbers of work related stress cases?

We all need a certain amount of pressure to function well as pressure helps people to reach their peak efficiency. Research shows that pressure can increase our energy and drive to meet deadlines and achieve targets. However, where do we draw the line? Prolonged, intense pressure can lead to stress which negatively impacts our physical and psychological health.

We also need to remember that often too little pressure, or insufficient work over a sustained period, can also result in stress related issues. Too little work or unchallenging work can ultimately lead to 'rust out' which is similar to 'burn out'. Low performing employees may suffer from boredom - everyone needs a challenge to stimulate them and give them a sense of identity and value. Everyone has different thresholds - what one person would consider positive actions, i.e. motivating and pressure, another many find completely overwhelming.

There are six management standards laid out by the Health and Safety Executive, which aim to reduce the levels of work related stress amongst UK workers and cover the primary sources of stress in the workplace:

1. Demands - Workload, work patterns and the work environment

2. Control - How much input does the individual have in their work?

3. Relationships - The promotion of positive working to avoid conflict, plus the identification of unacceptable behaviour

4. Change - Organisational change, whether large or small, and how it is managed and communicated throughout the organisation

5. Role - Whether the individual understands his/her purpose within the organisation and the precise nature of his/her responsibility together with an appreciation of their place in the organisational structure

6. Support - Includes training and factors specific to the individual plus adequate support from peer group and line managers. Individuals should receive training to ensure they are able to undertake the core functions of their job whilst allowing for factors unique to the individual.

But why should employers be concerned about stress, apart from the obvious cost it is having on their business?

Examples of how prolonged and excessive pressure may impact an organisation include absenteeism, conflict and aggression amongst staff, lower productivity from employees, poor communication between management and employees, accidents and errors; in extreme cases customer relationships may be threatened if employees are suffering from stress and dealing with external customers and clients.

Employers have a legal and moral duty to ensure their workforce is not made ill as a result, directly or indirectly, of the work they do. Organisations undergoing restructure or change should aim to engage their employees from the offset. Communication between line managers and their staff is key. Line managers who have formed good relationships with their staff are more likely to notice any obvious signs of stress or anxiety within their teams and then be able to take action to address any issues.

Employers must consider the financial impact of staff absenteeism, turnover and service delivery to their business. Staff performance, productivity and reliability will inevitably be adversely affected by work stress and the effects on talent retention and recruitment, as well as organisational reputation, will soon become evident if work stress is not managed effectively. Indemnity insurance premiums may increase, plus the increased risk of litigation by any employee experiencing work-related stress.

So, what can you do about stress?

Having managers who are well trained to support employees and able to identify, manage and minimise stress is vital, as is the ability to communicate effectively with individual employees in such a way that the employee is more likely to approach their line manager and talk through any issues which are causing them to feel stressed or anxious. Line managers have a key role to play in identifying and tackling stress within their teams and being able to increase awareness and understanding of how their behaviours may impact colleagues is vital.

Businesses should be addressing the issue by training and developing their leaders to be able to spot the symptoms of stress and to learn how to prevent and reduce workplace stress. Line managers should be encouraged to develop their existing leadership and communication skills and to explore the importance of positive manager behaviours.

Organisations should also consider creating or reviewing their stress management policies, set up staff consultation groups and make staff aware of who they can talk to if they are suffering with stress. This may include access to employee assistance programmes (EAPs), coaching services, occupational health, line managers and human resource managers. If a staff member is suffering with work related stress and makes this known to their manager then their manager must follow up and take action (conduct a risk assessment) to alleviate or reduce the impact on the individual.

Many organisations continue to face tougher legislative and economic challenges and organisations and their employees need to be provided with the tools and interventions to enable them to prevent and reduce workplace stress, to boost employee engagement, to support management and leadership development and to enable employers to promote a culture of wellbeing.

Follow Natasha on Twitter: @WSSNatasha