15 January 2001
Ask a group of HR managers to name the most over-used word in the workplace and there is a fair chance that "stress" would appear high on the list. While we live in an increasingly pressurised world with the workplace at the centre of this pressure, stress remains an elusive concept. One of the reasons it is so hard to deal with is that it is hard to be sure exactly what we are talking about. What is stressful for one employee is merely a bit of pressure for another. One person's stress is often another's job satisfaction.
Many, including the Government, see at least part of the solution as a better balance between work and home life. By cutting down working hours and by spending more time relaxing, the pressures of work will remain just that and not turn into stress. It sounds simple, but look around you: In an area like the law where a long-hours culture is so institutionalised, what chance do you have of getting the senior partners to agree to letting that newly qualified off for a game of tennis on a Thursday afternoon?
A further problem is that reward is more closely linked to performance than ever. The possibility of failure, of not reaching that quota of billable hours, begins to take on a new perspective when it means not getting that big end-of-year bonus.
Combined with a heightened awareness of issues such as discrimination, harassment and bullying, these everyday pressures can easily add up to a level of stress that can have a serious impact on business. What starts as a slightly higher than normal rate of sickness absence can quickly develop into a retention problem as staff leave in droves to find a less stressful life elsewhere. But what can a firm do to stop this situation developing?
Some consider the whole issue of stress as symptomatic of the "Americanisation" of the UK workplace. It is not surprising, therefore, to find solutions coming from the same direction. Most noticeable is the rapid expansion of employee counselling services, or employee assistance programmes (EAPs). Different EAPs provide different services for an equally wide range of prices, and as with most things, you get what you pay for.
The earliest EAPs started as alcohol and drug addiction helplines and provided a mixture of telephone and face-to-face counselling. More recently, services have expanded to offer a range of telephone help, including legal advice, estate agency services and even so-called domestic services such as a list of trustworthy local plumbers. These broader services aim to take a preventative approach and address the issue of stress at its root by removing the domestic pressures that can affect performance at work. After all, that is what most employers are concerned with, and if suffering employees work as well, or provide as good a service as those who are not suffering, how many firms would bother with an EAP?
Many stress management services also supply employers with reports of aggregated data - allowing them to identify potential future problem areas. While having this data can be invaluable to the firm, it has to be handled very carefully. Get too much information back and not only are you potentially in breach of the Data Protection Act, but you may also destroy employee trust in the service.
Building that trust, particularly among male employees, is one of the biggest obstacles to successful workplace counselling. To get the most from the service it has to be freely used by those who feel they need it.
Research shows that take-up rates for counselling services among male employees, particularly young males, is very low. Perhaps another US import, the hit TV series The Sopranos (featuring a gangster who is taking counselling sessions) will change things, but in the meantime most men are still more likely to go home and kick the cat or go down the pub and sink a few.