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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 11:23 GMT
Six Forum: Stress at work
Six Forum: Stress
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    More than thirteen million working days were lost to stress-related illness in the UK last year.

    The figures have been published by the Health and Safety Executive, who say that the number of people taking time off work because of ill-health has doubled since 1990.

    A total of 33 million working days were lost to illness last year, with a further seven million lost because of injuries.

    The Trade Union Congress says the figures prove that Britain is becoming a "sickie nation" because of the stresses and strains of the modern workplace.

    How can you avoid stress in the workplace? What should you do if you are suffering from anxiety or depression because of work?

    Carol Spiers, chair of the International Stress Management Association, answered your questions in a LIVE forum for the BBC's Six O'Clock News, presented by Manisha Tank.


    Hello and welcome to the Six Forum, I'm Manisha Tank. Stress at work is losing bosses billions of pounds, the number of people taking sick leave on the basis of stress related illness has doubled since 1990, so says a new government report. But some independent research suggests the jobs haven't become any tougher, so is the UK just becoming a sicky nation? Well Carol Spiers of the International Stress Management Association joins me now to address your questions.

    Good to see you Carol and I hope it wasn't too much of a stressful journey getting here. But it's no laughing matter at all, given this report, and we're going to be dealing with an e-mail that we received from Joanne Walker in Leicester. "The Health and Safety executive's report said that there were 265,000 new cases of stress last year. Why are the numbers going up so quickly now?"

    Carol Spiers:
    The numbers are going up because more people are experiencing high levels of stress. There're increased hours, there's greater expectations on people, people are virtually working 24/7. And so therefore there's a greater need for people to try and achieve and greater competition all around so there are higher stress levels.

    Now it's quite interesting, just talking about the workplace in general, Chris B in the UK has written in saying: "Stress in the workplace is usually caused by other people behaving unreasonably, rather than the work itself?" So a slight disagreement perhaps with some of the issues that you've brought up there. "Would a shift to working at home actually solve this problem in any way?"

    Carol Spiers:
    Well one can actually say that there is actually stress in working at home as well. Stress actually comes about when one feels actually out of control. Basically pressure is good for us and stress is not. So therefore it's any situation where we actually feel out of control with that particular situation happening to us. So if working at home we are in control of what we're doing then that's going to be good for us and that's going to be fine and we can thrive on that and exactly the same in the workplace - it's dependent on whether we are in control or out of control.

    And this very neatly leads us on to an e-mail from Elizabeth Harper in Belfast. "What are the early warning signs of being stressed at work?" You're saying out of control but how do you realise that you're getting to that point?

    Carol Spiers:
    Well okay, I think there are very, very few people that wouldn't recognise the fact they can't go to sleep at night and they're not sleeping at night or waking up at 3 o'clock in the morning with things buzzing around in their head. And there are again few people that don't know when they're taking to alcohol and having excess alcohol or smoking far more. And other signs are things like lack of concentration, increased accidents, irritability - they may not recognise it themselves but they may actually listen to what other people are saying to them, so they'll actually hear those warning signs then.

    Okay but there are some out there who believe that we've just become a nation of people who complain all too quickly about the amount of work we're doing and there was a time when that didn't really happen. Stella's written in from Hounslow saying, "The work ethic I absorbed as a child made me see overwork as a sign of virtue and stress or exhaustion as an admission of weakness. Do we need to change the whole attitude to work and stress?"

    Carol Spiers:
    We need to look at work as actually how we can manage it, so therefore we need to look at what is actually within our remit. We need to be able to talk to management if we can't cope, not see it as a sign of weakness, as some people see stress as a sign of weakness, but actually open up that level of communication so we can actually communicate with management and tell them if there is a problem. The loyalty factor needs to be brought back into industry, commitment needs to be brought back into industry and taking a day off here, there and everywhere is not a good idea - one has to ask the question as to why people are actually doing that. So therefore the work ethic is very, very important. If you don't have your commitment people won't want to be working. So therefore if you're not feeling very well what'll get you into work is because you actually feel valued and recognised when you turn up on the doorstep rather than just feeling like you're a number or a computer or something like that.

    Carol listen to this. Diane in the West Midlands has written to us saying: "I wish people realised that being unemployed long-term is stressful too. I have no job, no money, I'm bored to death and socially isolated - having too much time and not enough to do is stressful too, did we need some stress in our lives to give us focus?"

    Carol Spiers:
    We need pressure and also what she's actually saying is a difficult time to manage, there's no question of that, it's trying to motivate or self-motivate yourself everyday to get up. We all know it's quite easy to get up in the morning when you've got something specific to do, the difficulty comes in is that when you haven't got anything to do or anything to get up for you have to motivate yourself to actually do that. Having pressure in our lives is good for us, stress is not but we certainly need that pressure, we need the adrenaline, we need the noradrenaline - the cortisol - to actually get us up there and actually just do something everyday.

    Valeria from London's written in saying: "Is there a school of thought that says a small amount of stress is good for you?" You were just talking about the real biological impact of our bodies reacting to what's happening around us.

    Carol Spiers:
    I'm saying pressure is good for us and stress is not. Stress is like a light switch - we turn it on but we need to know how to actually turn it off and that's what's extremely important. Recognise the warning signs when stress is being turned on and recognise when it's not and then take some action to do something about it. It's all very well having the warning signs but unless you actually take action nothing's going to happen.

    Okay, well going back to the workplace. An e-mail that we've just had in from Mick Jeffs in Plymouth: "I think stress is an excuse to go sick. How many self-employed people go sick with stress?"

    Carol Spiers:
    I wouldn't say it's an excuse to go sick but sometimes people feel that they're working too hard, they don't necessarily feel that they have the confidence to talk to management, management may say please come and see me, it's an open door policy, when you go in and there's nobody actually there. So it's not necessarily an easy job to do and I see management have a very, very important role in actually communicating with their employees and actually truly having that open door policy. So therefore it's not an easy one to manage but industry needs to do so.

    Newshost: Talking about managing stress, John Rogers is another one just in from London: "What are the names of organisations supporting stress management?"

    Carol Spiers:
    You can get in touch with the International Stress Management Association - - they're an organisation of stress management professionals, so you can get in touch with them. You can get in touch with the British Association of the Counselling of Psychotherapy. So there are various organisations around if you have a major problem or if you have a problem and you want someone to talk to then get in touch with the Samaritans who are there to give help and support as and when you need it 24 hours a day. The agencies are there, so therefore use the support that they offer and actually manage your own life more effectively.

    Okay going back to a couple of case studies. We've got another e-mail just in, this one from Mike, saying: "I'm a charge nurse in the NHS in Leeds and I'm off sick with stress. The main problem for me is the constant unrelenting changes that we simply barely have the time to take on board one new thing when there is another thing to deal with. Prior to this sickness I worked for 24 years taking no sick time at all, does this just tell us how our working conditions have changed in the last few decades?"

    Carol Spiers:
    It does, I would say certainly change is an enormous factor and what he's actually saying there is as soon as one change has happened you've no time to breathe before the next one starts happening and taking place and that is really difficult to manage. And there's no easy answer to that in the slightest. And so therefore it needs to be managed to the best of our ability. Again it comes back to management. When they're bringing out and rolling out these changes what are they actually doing - are they communicating effectively, are people hearing about the changes just as they turn up for work everyday, as a by-the-way did you hear it on the grapevine? Management have a responsibility - if changes are needed to be implemented for the benefit of the organisation or the business it's how you actually bring about those changes. We, as human beings, don't normally like change, we don't normally like the fact that somebody moves our chair away from our desk and moves things away or somebody's moved our pen pot and things like that. So we have to manage change effectively, so we don't actually see it as a threat and we don't actually see it - we can look at it as a challenge but we need people in the organisation to help us to do that, a single voice is difficult but so saying a single voice can bring about other people and I'd say talk to management - they have a huge responsibility to work with employees, not removing employees out of the equation, it's actually everybody working together and pulling together really for the good of the cause - for the benefit of the organisation which at the end of the day is productivity and performance and profitability.

    Well absolutely but it seems from this report that that perhaps is phasing down. Just stick with us for a second. While we've been talking we've been running our News Online poll, it's not particularly scientific, I must tell you, but viewers have been telling us how they find their job and 89 per cent of you say that you think work is stressful. Carol that's obviously, like I said, not a scientific poll but is that sort of response something that you expected?

    Carol Spiers:
    Yes it's there, it's around for us all to see, people are actually now pulling together and actually raising their voices above the parapet - they're actually saying we feel stress in the workplace. We need to listen to it. We need to address it. The Health and Safety executive are there supporting and giving ideas and giving guidance, employers need to actually adhere to that guidance. There's no point in paying lip service to any stress management support systems, there's no point in paying lip service to just putting in a token employee counsellor. Stress management has to be a part of the culture of the organisation. It has to be built into the philosophy of the organisation. It has to start from the top. There's no point in starting at the assembly line, they're essential to give that support to but it has to actually cascade right throughout the organisation and actually become a part of the culture of the framework and the tenet of that particular business.

    Meanwhile employees themselves are enquiring about their rights in this scenario and given this particular document, that we've had from the government, unfortunately an anonymous text message, do let us know where you're writing in from and who you are, but what are your rights when returning to work after stress regarding what the employee needs from their employers?

    Carol Spiers:
    The most important thing when returning to work is to go to see the human resources or personnel department. Link in with your manager, go and seek guidance - HR is the place to go to, they will be the people who will actually be able to enable that person to know what it is - the help that they will need to come back to work. To take time off of work is difficult in itself but to come back into the workplace when you've been away for a day, two days, three weeks or four months is even more difficult and sometimes people need support to actually help them to do that. We call it rehabilitation back to work and it's very, very important that managers again, employers, see the responsibility in helping people back to work. You're far better off to help them back to work, even if they're working - smaller productivity than to have them off sick. But to know that they are valued and they're missed and they are needed - how many employees do I know do not feel needed in the slightest and that is a great shame.

    It is a great shame. Well Carol we've talked about stress management, I'm afraid I'm going to have to do some time management now because we have to wrap it up there. Carol Spiers of the International Stress Management Association thank you.

  • See also:

    14 Oct 02 | Business
    26 Dec 01 | Scotland
    06 Nov 02 | Business Day
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