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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 07:22 GMT
Companies told to prevent stress at work
Boiler engineer Mark Antrobus: Addicted to his mobile
Boiler engineer Mr Antrobus: Drives a lot and is addicted to his mobile
Workplace stress is now the fastest growing cause of absence from work, costing British companies 3.7 billion pounds a year.

Last year, more than 13 million working days were lost to stress-related illnesses in the workplace, The Money Programme has found.

"Our trade union legal officers have reported massive increases in the number of cases of stress," said Tom Mellish of the TUC.

"There's something like 6,400 cases of stress actually waiting at the moment to go through the courts."

Prison

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have decided that it is time to act and crack down on those employers they find are not measuring up, starting with the National Health Service.

Stressed woman
Employers believe it is natural to be tired after a normal day at work
The West Dorset Hospital Trust is one of the first to be put on notice to reduce stress levels amongst its staff.

"Nursing is a stressful profession, there is no doubt about it," said Jenny Price, a senior nurse manager at the hospital.

"But when it's compounded by an environment or a situation that you feel people aren't listening to you, and they're not putting systems in place to help you, then you're bound to get stressed."

If the hospital does not comply with the Improvement Notice, then the managers could face a 20,000 fine or even 6 months in jail.

Normal

But not everyone agrees with the HSE.

Employers' organisations like the Institute of Directors insist that the problem is exaggerated.

They point out that average working hours in Britain are going down and argue that the term stress has just become popularised.

"People are now describing working a normal day's period of time in the office as being stressful," said Dr Richard Wilson, business policy executive at the Institute of Directors.

Finding the cause

The Money Programme conducted a test to find out just what was stressing British workers.

The programme followed the lives of three people:

  • Mark Antrobus from Yorkshire, a heating engineer and a slave to his mobile phone who drives 1,000 miles a week to his appointments and constantly worries about the next job.

    "I blame a lot of my problems on my mobile phone", said Mr Antrobus.

    "It was a great working tool 15 years ago when I got one.

    "Since then it has become a burden."

  • Suzanne Dale from North London, a single working mother trying to balance a difficult job with a demanding home life.

    "Being a lone parent with a child and combining that with a job is a major stressor," Ms Dale said.

    "Stress and me and how I sort of bury it and ignore it is a feature of my life and I think that's very much about having to just cope."

  • John Hurley from Essex, a share trader living on his nerves to try and stay one step ahead of the market.

    "It's always at the back of your mind that you're trading yours and your family's money," Mr Hurley admitted.

    "But you also realise that you need to take X amount of risk because you trade for yourself, and whatever money you do make will go straight into your pocket."

Monitors

The Money Programme followed the three from dawn to dusk and examined how big a role stress plays in their working day.

And with the help of the country's top stress expert, the programme asked how much damage their daily stress levels could be causing.

"Some people will react badly, other people will be able to take the pressures and the demands put upon them very well," said University of London's Professor Eric Brunner.

The Money Programme devised a test which has the three wear heart monitors during a typical working day to identify the times when they are under the greatest stress.

They also filled out questionnaires and filmed video diaries describing their feelings about work.

This gave Professor Brunner insight into why they were stressed.

Solutions

One of Mr Antrobus' greatest cause of stress is his constant phone calls and the fact that he is putting in enormous effort into his work without feeling that he gets much reward.

To combat stress and to focus on his own health, Mr Antrobus "could take up yoga, he could take up martial art [or] go swimming", said Professor Brunner.

Mr Hurley, meanwhile, suffers from stress largely to the "rather monotonous and repetitive" nature of his work, Professor Brunner said.

"What he's got to do is to take as many breaks as he can, perhaps go to the gym or swimming pool," he said.

Ms Dale should try to find the right "balance of her work and her personal family life" Professor Brunner said.

"She needs to pay more attention to finding some ways of relaxing and enjoying herself rather than spending her entire waking hours either looking after her son or looking after her patients and clients.

"Clearly, she is rarely off duty."

"Burnt out Britain" will be broadcast on Wednesday, 25 February at 1930 GMT on BBC Two.



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