07/11/2012 01:55 GMT | Updated 06/01/2013 10:12 GMT

Time to Take Stress Seriously

The seventh of November is National Stress Awareness Day. For 14 years, the day has aimed to increase public understanding of a condition that affects thousands of people and businesses across the UK, and yet the issue is still woefully neglected by a worrying number of organisations. It is not only about keeping your staff healthy and happy - ignoring stress can also have a real effect on your business's bottom line.

Stress is a condition that is becoming more and more prevalent, with the economic crisis only adding to the problem. Businesses are under increasing pressure to stretch resources and boost productivity, and this strain is being passed on to staff who are already stressed about budget cuts and fear of redundancy. This often results in increased stress levels, as employees are forced to deal with more demanding workloads, high sales targets and overstretched management teams.

The figures speak for themselves. A report released by Kalms, which sells herbal stress remedies, revealed that over two thirds of the 2,000 men and women surveyed said that they have suffered from stress, anxiety or both in the last month and found that the average Briton experiences 208 stressful situations a year. Also according to insurance giant, AXA, stress levels in the UK have doubled in the last four years.

The government has suggested that employers should encourage employees to enjoy their full holiday entitlement, allow employees to work from home when appropriate, and consider job shares and adopt flexible hours, for example during school holidays. In my view, flexible working should not always be seen as an extra expense; instead it can often reap rewards and lead to less stressed and anxious employees, resulting in a more committed and productive workforce. Of course, it's not right for all businesses, but a blanket "no" would also be wrong.

It is important that all organisations, regardless of size, take reasonable steps to create an open and properly supportive working environment. The key to effective management is communication and training, and proper and reasonable investment in these areas will reap dividends. Managers who communicate well, consult, and develop their staff are more likely to support positive mental health and resilience in the people they manage. Furthermore, employers should ensure that they have in place mechanisms to deal with and help alleviate workplace stress, both in terms of staff training, and in dealing with individual cases.

Statistics have shown that once an employee is off work for six weeks it is very difficult to get them back into the workplace. Many employees off with stress are frequently signed off for long periods. They find it difficult to consider returning to work, and employers are often very wary of how to handle such situations.

It is essential, however, that these situations are properly managed and also essential that employers take reasonable steps to prevent employees suffering from unreasonable levels of work-related stress in the first place. Otherwise businesses can find themselves involved in costly employment tribunal proceedings and/or having to deal with personal injury claims arising from the physical and mental damage caused to an employee's health by stress.

If an employee can show that a personal injury has been caused by work-related stress, that the injury was reasonably foreseeable and that the employer was negligent in failing to prevent the injury occurring, then their personal injury claim is likely to succeed. This means that staying on top of the situation is essential, with line managers needing to be trained to identify those employees who may be vulnerable and with businesses needing to have a culture of watchfulness entrenched within the organisation.

Businesses should use National Stress Awareness Day as an opportunity to examine their existing policies with regard to stress and to try to identify any problems before they become serious or widespread. Stressed employees are usually neither happy nor productive, and the long-term sickness absence that can result from stress is not good for business. Driving efficiency to cut costs can be completely counterproductive if carried out without looking at the impact it may have on employees.

Employers must take workplace stress seriously, or they risk losing their competitive edge and their best people. If we continue to ignore the problem, we do so at our peril - in such difficult times, a stress epidemic is the last thing that the economy needs.